Gritty, heartfelt, and passionately political, Norma Rae is an old-fashioned message movie that could easily have slipped into the one-dimensional mediocrity one associates with generic TV movies. After all, it’s the fictionalized story of a real-life factory worker who risked her employment in order to unionize the workers in an oppressively conservative Deep South community. What elevates Norma Rae above the norm is the conviction of Martin Ritt’s filmmaking, the intelligence of the script by frequent Ritt collaborators Harriet Frank Jr. and Irving Ravetch, and, most importantly, the inspirational performance in the title role by Sally Field. After becoming famous on such dippy ’60s TV series as The Flying Nun and Gidget, Field demonstrated serious dramatic chops with the acclaimed telefilm Sybil (1976), but it took a few years for her to win a substantial role in a theatrical feature. She seized the opportunity with the same fervor that her character assumes her destiny as a labor leader. Downplaying her fresh-scrubbed prettiness (while still rocking an amazing figure in skimpy T-shirts and tight jeans), Field slips convincingly into the skin of a blue-collar working mom exhausted from trying to balance a job and a family.
When we meet Norma Rae Webster (Field), she’s one of many put-upon drones in a cotton mill, though Norma Rae gives her thuggish superiors more lip than anyone else on the factory floor. One day, labor organizer Ruben Warshowsky (Ron Leibman) shows up to recruit workers interested in unionizing, and thus begins a sort of ideological courtship with Norma Rae. Although the two never become lovers—Norma Rae’s devoted to her decent but simple husband, Sonny (Beau Bridges)—Ruben opens Norma Rae’s eyes to the possibilities of the outside world. As a fast-talking Jew from New York, he seems like an exotic creature to Southern-bred Norma Rae, and the way he respects Norma Rae’s mind instills a newfound sense of intellectual pride. Empowered by Ruben’s friendship and driven by the desire to make the world better for her people, Norma Rae organizes a factory strike that has dangerous repercussions in her private and professional lives.
Given its nature as an unlikely-hero parable, the ending of Norma Rae is a foregone conclusion, so one could easily complain that the dramatic stakes of the picture never feel terribly high. Then again, the purpose of a movie like this one is paying tribute to the sacrifices virtuous people are willing to make for worthwhile causes, and Norma Rae does indeed go through rough patches. It helps, tremendously, that Ritt and cinematographer John A. Alonzo shot the picture in a real factory and other genuine locations, so the texture of the piece feels real even when the dramaturgy gets schematic. The supporting cast is solid, featuring such reliable character players as Morgan Paull and Noble Willingham, and both Bridges and Leibman play their key roles with humanity and humor. Ultimately, of course, this one’s all about Field, who won an Oscar for her rousing work; Norma Rae also collected an Oscar for Best Original Song, the Jennifer Warnes-sung “It Goes Like It Goes.”
Norma Rae: GROOVY