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Norma Rae

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Norma Rae
Theatrical release poster
Directed byMartin Ritt
Written byIrving Ravetch
Harriet Frank Jr.
Produced byTamara Asseyev
Alexandra Rose
StarringSally Field
Ron Leibman
Beau Bridges
Pat Hingle
Barbara Baxley
CinematographyJohn A. Alonzo
Edited bySidney Levin
Music byDavid Shire
Distributed by20th Century-Fox
Release date
  • March 2, 1979 (1979-03-02)[1]
Running time
110 minutes
CountryUnited States
Budget$4.5 million[2]
Box office$22 million[3]

Norma Rae is a 1979 American drama film directed by Martin Ritt from a screenplay written by Irving Ravetch and Harriet Frank Jr. The film is based on the true story of Crystal Lee Sutton[4][5] – which was told in the 1975 book Crystal Lee, a Woman of Inheritance by reporter Henry P. Leifermann of The New York Times[6] – and stars Sally Field in the title role. Beau Bridges, Ron Leibman, Pat Hingle, Barbara Baxley and Gail Strickland are featured in supporting roles. The film follows Norma Rae Webster, a factory worker with little formal education in North Carolina who, after her and her co-workers' health are compromised due to poor working conditions, becomes involved in trade union activities at the textile factory where she works.[7]

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 by 20th Century-Fox on March 2, 1979, to critical and commercial success. Reviewers praised the film's direction, its screenplay, its message, and especially Field's 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 Best Picture and won two: Best Actress (for Field) and Best Original Song for its theme song "It Goes Like It Goes".[8] 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 Wilson 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 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.



Norma Rae was filmed on location in Opelika, Alabama. The mill scenes were shot at the Opelika Manufacturing Corp., and the motel scenes were filmed at The Golden Cherry Motel.[9]


The movie's plot is based on events from the life of textile worker and union organiser Crystal Lee Sutton, who fought the J.P. Stevens Textiles mill in her hometown Roanoke Rapids, North Carolina. The scene where Norma Rae writes "UNION" on a sheet of cardboard and stands on a table until her co-workers shut off their machines is closely based on a protest by Lee Sutton in 1978.[10] Although Lee Sutton was fired from her job, the mill was unionized and she went to work as an organizer for the textile union.[11] In 2003 the Stevens textile mill closed,[12] along with hundreds of other similar factories across the Carolinas, as US textile manufacturing moved offshore to countries like China and Mexico.[13]


Sally Field's performance received critical acclaim, earning her the Academy Award for Best Actress.

Norma Rae received positive reviews. On Rotten Tomatoes it has an approval rating of 91% based on 32 reviews, with an average rating of 7.6/10. 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."[14] On Metacritic, the film has a weighted average score of 61 out of 100, based on reviews from 47 critics.[15]

Vincent Canby of The New York Times praised 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 as big as the screen that presents it".[16][17] 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."[18][19]

Gene Siskel of the Chicago Tribune gave the film two and a half out of four, and praised Field for a "thoroughly winning performance", but thought that Leibman gave a "lousy, overbearing performance that, for me, wrecked the movie".[20] Charles Champlin of the Los Angeles Times called the film "a wonderful and—for want of a better word—judicious work".[21]

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 intimidated. Well done."[22] Gary Arnold of The Washington Post stated that "Sally Field embodies the title character with considerable sincerity", but that the film "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".[23]

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."[24]

Retrospective lists[edit]

The New York Times placed the film on its Best 1000 Movies Ever list.[25]

Awards and nominations[edit]

Award Category Nominee(s) Result Ref.
Academy Awards Best Picture Tamara Asseyev and Alex Rose Nominated [26]
Best Actress Sally Field Won
Best Adapted Screenplay Irving Ravetch and Harriet Frank Jr. Nominated
Best Original Song "It Goes Like It Goes"
Music by David Shire;
Lyrics by Norman Gimbel
American Movie Awards Best Actress Sally Field Won
Cannes Film Festival Palme d'Or Martin Ritt Nominated [27]
Technical Grand Prize Won
Best Actress Sally Field Won
Golden Globe Awards Best Motion Picture – Drama Nominated [28]
Best Actress in a Motion Picture – Drama Sally Field Won
Best Screenplay – Motion Picture Irving Ravetch and Harriet Frank Jr. Nominated
Kansas City Film Critics Circle Awards Best Actress Sally Field Won [29]
Los Angeles Film Critics Association Awards Best Actress Won [30]
National Board of Review Awards Best Actress Won [31]
National Film Preservation Board National Film Registry Inducted [32]
National Society of Film Critics Awards Best Actress Sally Field Won [33]
New York Film Critics Circle Awards Best Actress Won [34]
Writers Guild of America Awards Best Drama – Adapted from Another Medium Irving Ravetch and Harriet Frank Jr. Nominated [35]

In 2011, Norma Rae was selected for the United States National Film Registry by the Library of Congress as being "culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant".[36][37]

The film is recognized by American Film Institute in these lists:

Home media[edit]

Norma Rae was released on VHS in December 1996, on DVD in December 2006, and Blu-ray in April 2014.

Musical adaptation[edit]

In December 2017, it was announced that Norma Rae was to be adapted into a stage musical. Rosanne Cash was set to compose the score.[40]


  1. ^ "Norma Rae - Details". AFI Catalog of Feature Films. American Film Institute. Retrieved May 18, 2019.
  2. ^ Aubrey Solomon, Twentieth Century Fox: A Corporate and Financial History, Scarecrow Press, 1989, p. 259
  3. ^ "Norma Rae, Box Office Information". Box Office Mojo. Retrieved June 6, 2013.
  4. ^ Obituary, The New York Times, September 15, 2009.
  5. ^ Obituary, Los Angeles Times, September 20, 2009.
  6. ^ Crystal Lee, a Woman of Inheritance, Henry P. Leifermann, Macmillan (1975), ISBN 0-02-570220-3
  7. ^ "Festival de Cannes: Norma Rae". festival-cannes.com. Retrieved 2009-05-24.
  8. ^ "The 52nd Academy Awards". oscars.org. Retrieved May 18, 2019.
  9. ^ Rhodes, Guy (April 23, 2009). "When Norma Rae came to town". thetuskegeenews.com. Retrieved June 2, 2013.
  10. ^ "Through the mill with Crystal Lee and Norma Rae". The Washington Post.
  11. ^ Eric Leif Davin, "Crystal Lee", In These Times, March 5–18, 1980, pp. 16–17.
  12. ^ "WestPoint Stevens closing Norma Rae textile facility".
  13. ^ "The rise and fall of textiles in South Carolina".
  14. ^ "Norma Rae". Rotten Tomatoes. Retrieved April 28, 2023.
  15. ^ "Norma Rae". Metacritic. Retrieved December 8, 2017.
  16. ^ Canby, Vincent (11 March 1979). "FILM VIEW (Published 1979)". The New York Times.
  17. ^ Canby, Vincent (March 11, 1979). "Sally Field's 'Norma Rae' Is A Triumph". The New York Times. D19, D24.
  18. ^ "Norma Rae". Variety. 1 January 1979.
  19. ^ "Film Reviews: Norma Rae". Variety. February 28, 1979. 20.
  20. ^ Siskel, Gene (March 2, 1979). "'Norma Rae': A lot of heart, a lot of Field". Chicago Tribune. Section 4, p. 12.
  21. ^ Champlin, Charles (February 25, 1979). "'Norma Rae': Two Threads Woven Through the Mill". Los Angeles Times. Calendar, p. 37.
  22. ^ Gilliatt, Penelope (March 19, 1979). "The Current Cinema". The New York Times. 128.
  23. ^ Arnold, Gary (March 7, 1979). "'Norma Rae': Haymaker for The Heartstrings". The Washington Post. B1, B5.
  24. ^ Milne, Tom (August 1979). "Norma Rae". The Monthly Film Bulletin. 46 (547): 181.
  25. ^ The Best 1,000 Movies Ever Made. The New York Times via Internet Archive. Published April 29, 2003. Retrieved June 12, 2008.
  26. ^ "The 52nd Academy Awards (1980) Nominees and Winners". Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. Archived from the original on November 10, 2014. Retrieved October 7, 2011.
  27. ^ "Norma Rae". Cannes Film Festival. Retrieved May 6, 2024.
  28. ^ "Norma Rae". Golden Globe Awards. Retrieved May 6, 2024.
  29. ^ "KCFCC Award Winners – 1970-79". Kansas City Film Critics Circle. Retrieved May 6, 2024.
  30. ^ "The 5th Annual Los Angeles Film Critics Association Awards". Los Angeles Film Critics Association. Retrieved May 6, 2024.
  31. ^ "1979 Award Winners". National Board of Review. Retrieved May 6, 2024.
  32. ^ "Complete National Film Registry Listing". Library of Congress. Retrieved May 6, 2024.
  33. ^ "Past Awards". National Society of Film Critics. Retrieved May 6, 2024.
  34. ^ "1979 New York Film Critics Circle Awards". New York Film Critics Circle. Retrieved May 6, 2024.
  35. ^ "Awards Winners". Writers Guild of America Awards. Archived from the original on December 5, 2012. Retrieved June 6, 2010.
  36. ^ "2011 National Film Registry More Than a Box of Chocolates". Library of Congress. December 28, 2011. Retrieved December 29, 2011.
  37. ^ "Complete National Film Registry Listing". Library of Congress. Retrieved 2020-05-06.
  38. ^ "AFI's 100 Years...100 Heroes & Villains" (PDF). American Film Institute. Retrieved 2016-08-14.
  39. ^ "AFI's 100 Years...100 Cheers" (PDF). American Film Institute. Retrieved 2016-08-14.
  40. ^ "Rosanne Cash Is Writing a Norma Rae Musical". Broadway.com.

External links[edit]