Norma Rae (1979)


By Scott Ross

One of very few mainstream American movies to deal honestly (and compassionately) with labor, and the performance that allowed Sally Field, finally, to shed her Gidget/Flying Nun past. Harriet Frank Jr. and Irving Ravetch based their screenplay, which is full of little marvels, on the experience of Chrystal Lee Sutton, a North Carolinian who tried to unionize her fellow fabric-plant employees. In life, Chrystal Lee failed; in the picture, gloriously, Norma Rae succeeds. It’s one of those rare, radiant movies that embrace people and ideas, a perfect valedictory for its director, the once-blacklisted Martin Ritt. It’s never condescending, and it refuses to cast its main characters as flawless super-heroes. Those facts alone make it an experience to savor.

The great supporting cast includes the wonderful Gail Strickland, with Pat Hingle and Barbara Baxley as Norma Rae’s quiet, mill-working parents, who learn too late the toll their industrial servitude exacts. One of the screenwriters’ most laudable triumphs is their refusal to make an overt romance out of the relationship between Fields’ Norma and Ron Liebman’s ingratiating, passionate Union organizer. Although Norma marries the decent, gentle Beau Bridges, the Fields-Liebman dynamic constitutes the movie’s real love-match. But it’s a romance of the mind as much as anything else, and no one before or behind the camera ever crosses the line between Platonic ideal and movie-cliché entanglement, making it one of the most satisfying cinematic friendships you’ll ever see.

Fields is astonishingly good. She’d won deserved plaudits a couple of years earlier playing the multiple-personalitied Sybil on television, and Norma gave her the chance to portray someone completely different and whose shadings are, if anything, even more complex and humane than the tortured Sybil’s. She lobbied hard for the role, and won an Oscar® for it.

Norma Rae also sports one of the most haunting — and succinct — main title themes in movies, the David Shire song “It Goes Like it Goes,” with poetic, questing lyrics by Norman Gimbel.

Note to American cruciverbalists: “Rae” is her middle, not her last, name. Norma Rae. Her surname is “Webster.” Got it?

Text copyright 2013 by Scott Ross

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