If you had any trouble possibly liking Sally Field before — consequently, one of the sweetest actresses ever to cross the screen — then there’s little gripe to be had with her any longer. Norma Rae really does feel like a gift for her. Both as a story to be a part of and a character to portray since both speak to us intuitively as an audience.
Marty Ritt offers a story that is as close a representation of his work as you might find — a narrative that’s not flashy but more importantly and yet still meaningful and chock full of human characters and conflicts. However, it’s not just sharing those elements for the sake of it. There is a rational impetus behind it all, setting out to shine a light on social grievances in order to enact some form of change.
Again, he gets a script from husband and wife powerhouse Harriet Frank Jr. and Irving Ravetch who fortuitously helped define his career with stories such as The Long Hot Summer (1958), Hud (1963), Hombre (1967), and this feature.
Its authentic inspiration stems from real life textile champion Crystal Lee Sutton, a worker in Roanoke Rapids, North Carolina. She spearheaded the unionization of her textile mill in an industry that has long held out against any regulation partially due to bullheaded leadership and ignorant lay workers who didn’t know any other life. There’s the arc in a nutshell.
Because Norma Rae (Field) is one of those people and she’s lived within a community of the very same folks all her life. Her father struggles to keep up with the strict regimen, her mother is losing her hearing systematically, and Webster has a couple young kids though she’s never officially married. As they might say, when she was a young woman, she knew a couple of men in the Biblical sense.
Part of what makes her so likable is the trait of a genuine straight-shooter with the alacrity to do what she sees fit. When Reuben Warshowsky (Ron Leibman) sets up shop in town long-term, to try and get support for a union, most of the locals are wary of the outsider. Norma Rae asks him almost innocently, “Are you a Jew?” He responds in the affirmative and she responds that she’s never met one before.
Though Reuben is a congenial fellow, he’s the definition of a fish-out-of-water, bred on New York society with a quality education, Dylan Thomas, and an attorney girlfriend waiting for him who his mother loves.
Ron Leibman does a fine job in the role because he doesn’t just play it charismatic and likable through every beat. He manages to skirt this fine line where there are genuine flashes of malice where we question Reuben as a person. Is he simply taking advantage of people or forcing others into a vision of what he thinks will be good for them? He even acts like a grade-A jerk and a bit of an instigator when he’s feeling up to it.
Thus, Norma Rae grounds him as someone who does have a full stake in this fight, in this community, and this story. This is her job, her family, her reputation all put out in the open — all on the line and she’s willing to go for it. That takes true gumption and a fighting spirit few individuals can muster. Boy has she got it. She’s also capable of the southern cajoling that made men like LBJ such effective movers and shakers.
However, the film constantly plays with this tension within her. Because she’s not a rich person by any means. When she’s given a promotion to a spot checker, her hourly rate goes up incrementally and she subsequently loses the respect of all her colleagues as someone who has gone to the enemy. The relationships mean more to her than the pay just as a better future has greater precedence over sacrificing her time and pouring heart and soul into Reuben’s cause.
Norma Rae also has a pulse of the ultimate good which is admirable. She goes to the local church — an all-white establishment — posing two questions to the reverend she has known all her life. First, asking if he would call her a Christian? He smiles and nods, with a lapse or two, yes.
But then, more pointedly, she asks if he would call himself a Christian? He’s still so caught up in the idiotic dogma that blacks and whites cannot mix. And yet for Norma Rae, the bottom line is there ought to be justice — and the church, if it’s really going to practice what it preaches, must be involved in this same dialogue.
It’s not always the words spoken but the images seen that leave a lasting impact. A funeral sequence in the rain. No words just a hearse being lowered into the ground inch by inch. The point is made better than any eulogy by man There’s Norma Rae transcribing an anti-union message on toilet paper to pass on to Reuben or the heart-to-heart she has with her kids to head-off any of the scurrilous slander they might pick up. There’s her furious struggle as two policemen try and drag her to a police car.
Likewise, Field standing up with a cardboard cutout simply scribbled with the block letters “UNION.” She slowly circles around, resolutely, again and again. People notice her, stop for a moment of consideration and then all turn off their machines in a simultaneous act of solidarity and defiance.
This particular sequence goes on for several minutes and the sequence is allowed to unwind wordlessly as we slowly hear the din grow progressively dimmer. It could have easily been cut down to its bare essentials and yet in this way the full brunt of the impact has been made apparent as we are forced to contemplate the full gravity. It’s an everyday action that takes on monumental dramatic importance.
The same could be said when the ballots are read in consideration of the new union. It’s back and forth. The tension again is palpable but it’s the jubilation on the faces that captures me. In every one of these instances, Ritt gives the immaculate illusion he lets it happen. No tricks. No extra flourishes. Just all right there for us to be a part of. He’s at his best with human stories of fully realized people working through things of seemingly genuine importance. That is Norma Rae to a tee.