- Movie Rating -

Norma Rae (1979); ★★★1/2

| March 2, 1979

Sally Field spent the seventies trying to change the image that she created in the sixties.  She spent the previous decade on television in “Gidgit” and then “The Flying Nun” and then in 1976 she silenced her critics who had written her off by giving an incredible performance as Sybil Dorsett, a woman with thirteen multiple personalities in the TV movie Sybil.  She was brilliant in that film but Martin Ritt’s Norma Rae would prove that it was no fluke.

She plays Norma Rae Webster, a 31 year old textile worker who is destined to spend her life working in the O.P. Henley textile mill just like everyone else in her small town.  She is a widow with two children, one from her late husband who was killed in a bar fight and the other from a one-night stand.  Beyond being a good mother and keeping her job there doesn’t seem to be any other ambition.  Then she meets Reuben (Ron Leibman), a union organizer who has come to town to help set up a union in her mill.

She resists anything from Reuben because she doesn’t want to lose her job.  But he opens her eyes and she begins to see what the long hours and meager pay are doing to her fellow workers.  After her father (Pat Hingle) drops dead at work from a heart attack, she decides to help Reuben organize a union to keep the mill from sucking her friends and family into an early grave.  Her co-workers, fearing for their jobs, want nothing to do with the union or Reuben.  She becomes more and more vocal.

Management threatens her, they try to sully her name by making light of her revolving series of boyfriends. She is defiant and when they see that she can’t be bullied or humiliated they try promotion. Promoting her to a checker, she loses some respect from her fellow workers who assume that she has sold out. In the meantime, she marries Sonny (Beau Bridges) and he gets angry with her because she isn’t home to clean up the house. He finds that he can’t intimidate her and is forced to take up the household chores. From Reuben and Sonny she gains admirers, from management they can’t decide what to do.

Norma Rae won’t back down, she has no education but she is stubborn, resilient and has a big mouth. The casting of the men is key, they are large, often tall scary looking men and short, skinny Norma stands among them refusing to be intimidated. The film builds through Norma Rae’s struggle so in the end when she copies a memo from the bulletin board in which the mill reminds white workers that blacks will take their jobs if there is a union, she is arrested. That’s when we get her best scene as she is told to leave but refuses to budge, shouting over the roar of the machines “Forget it! I’m stayin’ right where I am. It’s gonna take you and the police department and the fire department and the National Guard to get me outta here!” That’s when she stands on the table, writes “Union” on a pieces of cardboard and holds it over her head. The other workers defiantly turn off their machines and refuse to do anymore work. The film earns the moment, Norma Rae’s struggle has built to that moment so we feel that they understand and that they are protesting because they genuinely feel what she stands for.

Sally Field was perfect to play the part. I don’t feel that I am watching an actor on a set but that she has a presence that makes me believe that she’s been in that mill for years. She is the perfect physical stature as well, she is short and boney but her face is expressive especially when challenged. She is challenged at every turn but she always comes back. When the preacher turns her away from the local church because he won’t allow blacks to attend the meetings, he tells her “We’re going to miss your voice in choir, Norma” and without missing a beat she says “You’re gonna hear it somewhere else”. She has a lower jaw that tightens up when she is angry, moving her lower lip out. Her eyes express everything she is feeling. Norma Rae wears everything she is feeling right on the end of her nose. It is amazing to watch Field come back on those who try to bring her down, we feel her struggle, we feel her pain because Sally Field doesn’t hide anything. She lets Norma Rae’s frustration come through in droves so that we want her to succeed.

About the Author:

Jerry Roberts is a film critic and operator of two websites, Armchair Cinema and Armchair Oscars.
(1979) View IMDB Filed in: Drama
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