Sally Field graduated from being Burt Reynolds’ squeeze in Smokey and the Bandit to winning the Best Actress Oscar for this earnest but effective liberal drama about a southern single mother, Norma Rae Webster, who agrees to help unionize the textile mill where she works. It set the inspirational template for films like Silkwood, Erin Brockovich and North Country. Norma Rae is poor and under-educated but she’s tough as nails and smarter than most. She also has “the biggest mouth” in the mill. When a delegate from the Textiles Workers Union of America arrives, he’s viewed with suspicion and derision (he’s a New York Jew and probably a Communist to boot), but Norma hears him out and takes a stand. And her coworkers eventually fall in behind her…
The film was based on a true account, a New York Times profile of North Carolina mill worker Crystal Lee Jordan. But perhaps what is more important is the movie’s clear illustration of how racial discord is manipulated to try to pit white workers against Black (and vice versa), and how in order to thrive the labor movement must foster genuine class solidarity.
This is Sally Field’s movie. Her performance – hyperbole completely aside – is peerless, one of the major achievements by an actress in the movies of any place and of any time. Reuben tells Norma Rae that when he wants a smart, loud, profane, sloppy, hardworking woman he’ll call on her. From now on, when directors want legerdemain that becomes art, they’re going to call on Sally Field.
Jay Scott, Globe and Mail
More relevant than ever.
Naomi Fry, The New Yorker (2020)
No stranger to making movies about small-town, working-class life (see: Sounder, Murphy’s Romance), Martin Ritt gave us this Oscar winner starring Sally Field as a great American every-hero: Norma Rae Webster, a widowed single mom whose family and friends all work in the local textile mill. When union organizer Ron Leibman rolls into town, she becomes an unlikely ally — at which point her story taps into the universal experience of finding a cause and, unexpectedly, finding yourself in the process. There’s an all-American spirit of rebellion in Norma Rae, whose been pushed around, overlooked, and underestimated her entire life; fought on all sides, she stubbornly digs in her heels and fights for what’s right.
Jason Bailey, Rolling Stone
Sally Field, Beau Bridges, Ron Leibman, Pat Hingle
Best Actress in a Leading Role (Sally Field), Best Original Song, Academy Awards 1980
Tamara Asseyev, Alex Rose
Irving Ravetch, Harriet Frank Jr.
John A. Alonzo
Walter Scott Herndon
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