Norma Rae is a 1979 film by Martin Ritt based in part on Henry Leiferman's 1975 book Crystal Lee : A Woman of Inheritance which was an account of Crystal Lee Sutton's fight to unionise the workforce of JP Stevens textiles mill in North Carolina; a workplace of Dickensian conditions. Featuring an Oscar winning and typically engaging performance from Sally Field as the titular Norma Rae, a thinly disguised version of Crystal Lee, the film skillfully embodies the message that the workers of this world are unblemished children of nature whilst management and owners are sinful oppressors and, if the workforce just unite and take care of one another, they can prove the stronger of the two by both their sheer number and their desire for things to improve. Indeed, the film's title song 'It Goes Like It Goes' which one the film a second Oscar and is performed by Jennifer Warnes conveys the same message lyrically.
As a character Norma Rae falls into the strong tradition of the All American Heroine of many a true life biopic. She is one who hasn't had the best start in life, who has made plenty of mistakes in her time and whose mistakes and lifestyle can be used against her, but she has a strong will, a latent intellect and a naturally open mind that just needs both the opportunity and a chance to be nurtured. This is a template you can see in everything from Silkwood to Erin Brockovich, but with Sally Field in particular, the film and the central character is invested with a great deal of spirit, humour and depth. Her Norma Rae is the hick girl from the Deep South, who married young and was widowed young, who has two children, one illegitimate, who loves Dolly Parton and who has only left the town she was born in twice in her life. In lesser hands it could easily be a cliche, but with Sally Field's natural charisma and ability to play both the light and the shade it's easy to see why the Academy was so won over.
Field isn't the only one to give a wonderfully engaging performance, that honour falls to Ron Leibman as the Jewish, New York based TWUA organiser Reuben Marshasky. The pair both approach their roles and their inherent comedy and drama within with the same a commitment and conviction that helps them to stand out as fully rounded individuals. Leibman's character is a veritable fish out of water in a rural South with a largely at times hostile and suspicious township that would make Joe McCarthy look like a liberal and whose world view is minuscule. Indeed as Norma Rae freely admits at one point Marshasky is the first Jew she has ever met, and she was brought up to believe they had horns!
Field and Leibman bounce off one another so successfully that the viewer feels somewhat sad to see their mutual subtle and near unspoken romance go unrequited in the final frame even though you appreciate such a move for its realism and defiant stand against the mawkish sentimental predictability of other films. It is Beau Bridges as a fellow mill worker, single parent and young divorcee Sonny who wins Norma Rae's heart. Sonny's a good honest man and its a credible performance from Bridges but one can't help but feel it should be Leibman's name alongside Field's on the poster.
What's most refreshing about Norma Rae is that it's a film that neatly avoids stereotypes and cliches, something that hasn't always been possible when portraying 'redneck' communities or labour relations. Martin Ritt's film thankfully doesn't patronise or caricature these people to the point of parody, instead it offers a respectful and inspiring dedication to the grit and determination of each character large or small to convey just how big a deal finding their voice to ask for the unionisation of the plant is and how, were it not for Norma Rae and Marshasky, nothing would have changed for them at all.