Theatrical release poster
|Directed by||Martin Ritt|
|Produced by||Tamara Asseyev
|Written by||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 about a factory worker from a small town in North Carolina who becomes involved in the labor union activities at the textile factory where she works after the health of her and her co-workers is compromised. The film stars Sally Field in the title role, Beau Bridges as Norma Rae's husband, Sonny, and Ron Leibman as union organizer Reuben Warshowsky.
The movie was written by Harriet Frank, Jr. and Irving Ravetch, and was directed by Martin Ritt. It is based on the true story of Crystal Lee Sutton, which was told in the 1975 book Crystal Lee, a Woman of Inheritance by New York Times reporter Henry P. Leifermann.
The film premiered at the 1979 Cannes Film Festival where Field won the Best Actress Prize and was released theatrically on March 2, 1979, to widespread critical praise. Much acclaim and appreciation was focused in particular towards Field's performance, which was noteworthy as it is a very different role from the previous roles she played, which were usually the girlfriend roles in light comedies, being a drama about a single mother fighting for the unionizing of her hazardous workplace. The film received six 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." The film was selected for inclusion in the National Film Registry of the Library of Congress in 2011, deemed as being "culturally, aesthetically or historically significant".
Norma Rae Webster is a minimum-wage 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, 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. And after a few charged encounters with a New York union organizer, Reuben Warshowsky, 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, a death that could have been averted had he been allowed to leave his post early instead of wait 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 she 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 throughout the movie, they only shake hands because he knows she is married and loves her husband, and Reuben heads back to New York.
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.
- 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
- 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
Awards and honors
The film Norma Rae won Academy Awards for Best Actress in a Leading Role (Sally Field) and Best Original Song (David Shire and Norman Gimbel for "It Goes Like It Goes"). It was also nominated for Best Picture and for Best Writing, Screenplay Based on Material from Another Medium. The film was also nominated to the Palme d'Or (Golden Palm) at the 1979 Cannes Film Festival and Field was awarded Best Actress, in Cannes, for her performance.
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
- See film's entry at IMDb.com.
- 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.
- "Festival de Cannes: Norma Rae". festival-cannes.com. Retrieved 2009-05-24.
- Obituary 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.
- Eric Leif Davin, "Crystal Lee," In These Times, March 5–18, 1980, pp. 16-17.
- Rhodes, Guy (April 23, 2009). "When Norma Rae came to town". thetuskegeenews.com. Retrieved June 2, 2013.
- "2011 National Film Registry More Than a Box of Chocolates". Library of Congress. December 28, 2011. Retrieved December 29, 2011.
- "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.