Theatrical release poster
|Directed by||Martin Ritt|
|Produced by||Tamara Asseyev |
|Written by||Irving Ravetch |
Harriet Frank Jr.
|Music by||David Shire|
|Cinematography||John A. Alonzo|
|Edited by||Sidney Levin|
|Distributed by||20th Century Fox|
|Box office||$22 million|
Norma Rae is a 1979 American drama film directed by Martin Ritt from a screenplay written by Irving Ravetch and Harriet Frank Jr. Based on the true story of Crystal Lee Sutton, which was told in the 1975 book Crystal Lee, a Woman of Inheritance by reporter Henry P. Leifermann of The New York Times, it stars Sally Field in the titular role. Beau Bridges, Ron Leibman, Pat Hingle, Barbara Baxley, and Gail Strickland are featured in supporting roles. The film follows Norma Rae Webster, an uneducated factory worker in North Carolina who becomes involved in trade union activities at the textile factory where she works after her and her co-workers' health is compromised due to poor working conditions.
Norma Rae premiered at the 1979 Cannes Film Festival where it competed for the Palme d'Or, while Field won the Best Actress Prize. It was theatrically released on March 2, 1979 by 20th Century Fox to critical and commercial success. Reviewers praised the film's direction, screenplay, message and Field's titular performance, while the film grossed $22 million on a production budget of $4.5 million. The film received four nominations at the 52nd Academy Awards including for the Best Picture, and won two; Best Actress (for Field) and Best Original Song for its theme song, "It Goes Like It Goes". The film is considered "culturally, historically or aesthetically" significant by the U.S. Library of Congress and was selected to be preserved in the National Film Registry in 2011.
Norma Rae Webster is a worker in a cotton mill that has taken too much of a toll on the health of her family for her to ignore their poor working conditions. She is also a single mother with two children by different fathers, one dead and the other negligent, and frequently has flings with other men to alleviate her loneliness and boredom. Initially, management tries to divert her frequent protests by promoting her to "spot checker", where she is responsible for making sure other workers are fulfilling work quotas. She reluctantly takes the job for the pay hike, but when fellow employees, including her own father, shun her for effectively being a "fink" to the bosses, she demands to be fired. Instead, she is demoted back to the line.
Two men enter her life that change her perspective. A former co-worker, Sonny Webster, asks her out after earlier causing trouble for her at the mill. Divorced with a daughter, he proposes marriage after a short courtship; recognizing how long it has been since she met a non-selfish man to keep company with, she accepts his offer. After a few charged encounters with Reuben Warshowsky, a union organizer from New York City, Norma Rae listens to him deliver a speech that spurs her to join the effort to unionize her shop. This causes conflict at home when Sonny observes she's not spending enough time in the home and is frequently exhausted when she is present. When her father drops dead at the mill of a heart attack — a death that could have been averted had he been allowed to leave his post early instead of waiting for his allotted break —, she is more determined to continue the fight.
Management retaliates against the organization efforts, first by rearranging shifts so that workers are doing more work at less pay, and then by posting fliers with racial invective in the hope of dividing white and black workers and diluting the momentum. Warshowsky demands Norma copy down the racist flier word for word in order to use it as evidence for government sanctions against her mill. When she attempts to transcribe the flier, management attempts to stop her, then fire her on grounds of creating a disturbance, and call the police to remove her from the plant. While awaiting the sheriff, Norma Rae takes a piece of cardboard, writes the word "UNION" on it, stands on her work table, and slowly turns to show the sign around the room. One by one, the other workers stop their mill machines, and eventually, the entire room becomes silent. After all the machines have been switched off, Norma Rae is taken to jail but is freed by Reuben.
Upon returning home to her family, Norma decides to talk to her children and tell them the story of her life, their questionable parentage, and recent arrest, so that they are prepared for any smears that may come from those hoping to discredit her efforts. After a tense exchange with Reuben, Sonny asks her if they have been intimate; she says no, but acknowledges "he's in my head." Sonny, in turn, tells her there's no other woman in his head and he will always remain with her.
An election to unionize the factory takes place, with Norma and Reuben listening as best as possible from outside the mill as reporters and TV cameras observe the vote count. With a difference shy of 100 votes, the result is a victory for the union. Shortly after, Reuben says goodbye to Norma; despite his being smitten with her, they shake hands because he knows she is married and loves her husband, and Reuben heads back to New York.
- Sally Field as Norma Rae Webster
- Beau Bridges as Sonny Webster
- Ron Leibman as Reuben Warshowsky
- Pat Hingle as Vernon
- Barbara Baxley as Leona
- Gail Strickland as Bonnie Mae
- Gregory Walcott as Sheriff Lamar Miller
- Morgan Paull as Wayne Billings
- John Calvin as Ellis Harper
- Noble Willingham as Leroy Mason
- Grace Zabriskie as Linette Odum
- Robert Broyles as Sam Bolen
The story is based on Crystal Lee Sutton's life as a textile worker in Roanoke Rapids, North Carolina, where the battle for the workers' union took place against a J.P. Stevens Textiles mill. Her actual protest in the mill is the scene in the film where she writes the sign "UNION" and stands on her worktable until all machines are silent. Although Sutton was fired from her job, the mill was unionized, and she later went to work as an organizer for the textile union.
Norma Rae received widely positive reviews at the time of its release. It currently holds a 89% rating on Rotten Tomatoes based on 27 reviews, with an average rating of 7.55/10. The website's critical consensus reads, "Spearheaded by a galvanizing Sally Field, Norma Rae is a heartening and politically powerful drama about an ordinary woman taking an extraordinary stand.". On Metacritic, which assigns a rating to reviews, the film has a weighted average score of 61 out of 100, based on 47 critics, indicating "generally favorable reviews".
Vincent Canby of The New York Times raved about Field's performance, declaring that "we are witnessing one of those unusual motion picture performances that seems to be in the process of taking off as we watch it ... Her triumph in 'Norma Rae' is to have shucked off at long last all need to associate her with her TV beginnings, not because they are vulgar but because the performance she gives here is a big as the screen that presents it." Variety wrote, "'Norma Rae' is a superb film. Paced by Sally Field's best performance to date in a rapidly accelerating career, and under Martin Ritt's firm but sensitive direction, the 20th Century-Fox release is that rare entity, an intelligent film with heart." Gene Siskel of the Chicago Tribune gave the film 2.5 stars out of 4 and praised Field for a "thoroughly winning performance," but thought that Leibman gave a "lousy, overbearing performance that, for me, wrecked the movie." Charles Champlin of the Los Angeles Times called the film "a wonderful and—for want of a better word—judicious work." Penelope Gilliatt of The New Yorker wrote, "This picture is historically fascinating in what it tells us of the labor movement, and it does honor to a particular sort of involved character who will not be indimidated. Well done." Gary Arnold of The Washington Post stated that "Sally Field embodies the title character with considerable sincerity," but "the movie comes so unraveled that in retrospect the images of loose strands of fiber in the air seem more significant than the character of the heroine or the bleak factory environment. The screenplay by Irving Ravetch and Harriet Frank Jr. ... turns out to be a pile of loose thematic and emotional strands." Tom Milne of The Monthly Film Bulletin wrote, "Heart-warming is probably the word for Norma Rae, a film which leaves no cliché unturned in its cosy efforts to demonstrate how a woman no better than she ought to be becomes better than most of us."
The New York Times placed the film on its Best 1000 Movies Ever list.
Awards and nominations
The film is recognized by American Film Institute in these lists:
- 2003: AFI's 100 Years...100 Heroes & Villains:
- Norma Rae Webster – #15 Hero
- 2004: AFI's 100 Years...100 Songs:
- 2006: AFI's 100 Years...100 Cheers – #16
Home media releases
- "Norma Rae - Details". AFI Catalog of Feature Films. American Film Institute. Retrieved May 18, 2019.
- Aubrey Solomon, Twentieth Century Fox: A Corporate and Financial History, Scarecrow Press, 1989 p259
- "Norma Rae, Box Office Information". Box Office Mojo. Retrieved June 6, 2013.
- Obituary, The New York Times, September 15, 2009.
- Obituary, Los Angeles Times, September 20, 2009.
- Crystal Lee, a Woman of Inheritance, Henry P. Leifermann, Macmillan (1975), ISBN 0-02-570220-3
- "Festival de Cannes: Norma Rae". festival-cannes.com. Retrieved 2009-05-24.
- "The 52nd Academy Awards". oscars.org. Retrieved May 18, 2019.
- Rhodes, Guy (April 23, 2009). "When Norma Rae came to town". thetuskegeenews.com. Retrieved June 2, 2013.
- Eric Leif Davin, "Crystal Lee," In These Times, March 5–18, 1980, pp. 16-17.
- "Norma Rae". Rotten Tomatoes. Retrieved May 18, 2019.
- "Norma Rae". Metacritic. Retrieved December 8, 2017.
- Canby, Vincent (March 11, 1979). "Sally Field's 'Norma Rae' Is A Triumph". The New York Times. D19, D24.
- "Film Reviews: Norma Rae". Variety. February 28, 1979. 20.
- Siskel, Gene (March 2, 1979). "'Norma Rae': A lot of heart, a lot of Field". Chicago Tribune. Section 4, p. 12.
- Champlin, Charles (February 25, 1979). "'Norma Rae': Two Threads Woven Through the Mill". Los Angeles Times. Calendar, p. 37.
- Gilliatt, Penelope (March 19, 1979). "The Current Cinema". The New York Times. 128.
- Arnold, Gary (March 7, 1979). "'Norma Rae': Haymaker for The Heartstrings". The Washington Post. B1, B5.
- Milne, Tom (August 1979). "Norma Rae". The Monthly Film Bulletin. 46 (547): 181.
- The Best 1,000 Movies Ever Made. The New York Times via Internet Archive. Published April 29, 2003. Retrieved June 12, 2008.
- "2011 National Film Registry More Than a Box of Chocolates". Library of Congress. December 28, 2011. Retrieved December 29, 2011.
- "Complete National Film Registry Listing | Film Registry | National Film Preservation Board | Programs at the Library of Congress | Library of Congress". Library of Congress, Washington, D.C. 20540 USA. Retrieved 2020-05-06.
- "AFI's 100 Years...100 Heroes & Villains" (PDF). American Film Institute. Retrieved 2016-08-14.
- "AFI's 100 Years...100 Songs Nominees" (PDF). Retrieved 2016-08-14.
- "AFI's 100 Years...100 Cheers" (PDF). American Film Institute. Retrieved 2016-08-14.