Norma Rae (1979)

“You’re overpaid, you’re overworked… They’re shafting you right up to your tonsils.”

Synopsis:
A Jewish labor organizer from New York (Ron Leibman) visits a textile mill in the deep South and convinces a feisty single mother (Sally Field) to assist him in forming a union, despite strong opposition from management and some frustration from Field’s new husband (Beau Bridges).

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Response to Peary’s Review:
Peary writes that this Martin Ritt-directed film about “a stubbornly independent single mother who … becomes so obsessed with organizing that she has trouble with her employers… her minister… the law, and her new husband” is “extremely progressive: not only is it pro-union, but it also builds strong cases for women to be involved in political action (so they can enjoy personal growth) and for their men to share the housework…; it advocates friendships between blacks and whites and Jews and Christians, and says that men and women can work together without becoming lovers and that husbands and wives can be friends as well as lovers”. He notes that “scenes that could come across as being extremely self-conscious… make us feel touched by their honesty”, and adds that the “picture has authentic atmosphere, surprising toughness, and characterizations by Field and Leibman that are downright inspirational”.

Peary elaborates on Field’s performance in his Alternate Oscars, where he agrees with the Academy in awarding Field Best Actress of the Year for her portrayal as “the closest to perfect any woman has been on the screen since Ingrid Bergman’s nun in The Bells of St. Mary’s.” He writes:

“Here’s a woman who has little education, who has a bad reputation, and who has never been kind to herself. Yet she says, ‘One of these days I will get myself all together’, and proceeds to pick herself up. And making good use of her heart, guts, hard head, and big mouth accomplishes so much that she deserves all the admiration she receives. What’s most commendable is that she isn’t interested in just improving her own life… She wants to improve the lot of all mill workers, which will make her own job more respectable.”

Peary further adds that “Field does an extraordinary job as this woman who displays remarkable courage and tenacity. It’s fun seeing this small-framed woman with a teenager’s face stand up to intimidating men, ignoring their threats, shouting at them, issuing threats of her own”, and notes that she “touches every scene with honest emotions”.

Peary’s praise is well-deserved: Field carries this film upon her tiny yet firm shoulders with incredible courage and chutzpah — speaking of which, Leibman’s role is equally critical to the film’s success, and his performance just as powerful as Field’s. The direction their relationship takes is both unexpected and refreshing. Meanwhile, the supporting cast and all details of this place-based film feel spot-on (check out TCM’s article for more details about filming on location in Alabama). The level of ongoing hubbub in the textile factory is authentically deafening, giving the film’s most famous scene additional “emotional impact: when Field stands on a table at the mill, holding high a sign that reads ‘Union’, [director] Ritt has all the workers look straight ahead at her so that it’s clear each of them turns off his or her machine because of Field and not because fellow workers are doing so.” In an era of truly unsettling unknowns about the future of human labor, Norma Rae is a much-needed reminder that staunch activism, fearless leaders, and unwavering support are needed more than ever.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Sally Field as Norma Rae (named Best Actress of the Year by Peary in his Alternate Oscars)
  • Ron Leibman as Reuben (nominated by Peary as one of the Best Actors of the Year in Alternate Oscars)
  • Strong supporting performances
  • A humane, realistic script



Must See?
Yes, as a worthy Oscar-winner. Nominated as one of the Best Pictures of the Year in Alternate Oscars.

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