Late To The Party: Norma Rae

I’d heard of Norma Rae and Sally Field’s Oscar nominated performance as the titular character when the film was released in 1979, but for some reason, I never felt motivated to see it. Something about it put me off. I suspect it was classism, because I remember not wanting to see a movie about a working-class white woman from the South. The thought left me cold, as an about-to-be college educated white woman from St. Louis (which, although in a former slave state, always was a Northern town).1 Besides, my feminist leanings were engrossed in the handsome young Dustin Hoffman’s role in the award-winning Kramer vs. Kramer. (Irony abounds, given what I now know about Hoffman’s treatment of his female co-actors onset.)

Flash forward to now, and unions are having a renaissance (and about time, too), and the story of how a woman struggled to unionize the factory she worked for now had a lot more resonance for me. Of course, it’s nearly impossible to find online, but fortunately my local library had a DVD copy. So at last I watched Norma Rae, based on a true story, and found it a worthy film with a truly captivating performance from Field.

Norma Rae grounds the viewer in Rae’s life in a small Southern town from the onset, taking care to show her discontent, rebelliousness and intelligence. She’s trapped in a factory mill with noise levels so loud that the workers’ hearing is damaged; she’s living in her parents’ home with two children from a failed marriage; she’s having an affair with a man who treats her like used Kleenex. But she’s fighting against the boxes which her family and coworkers are trying to keep her in. She breaks off her affair, receiving a slap in the face and a bloody nose for her “sass”. A few doors down in the cheap hotel is the union organizer from New York (Ron Leibman) who she heard appealing to her father earlier in the day. She stops to talk to him, he offers her ice for her nose, and love is born. No, actually not, which is refreshing; but a friendship and business relationship does being as they begin working to organize the millworkers into a labor union.

The film works best when it’s showing us the world through Rae’s eyes, as she gets caught up in arguing with workers to join the fight against their low wages and horrible working conditions. At first, she’s distracted by the promise of a promotion; but when she realizes that it’s based on ratting out her coworkers, and they react by hating her, she rejects it to continue her fight. As much interest as I had in the outcome (although I never had much doubt about it), the true strength of the story is Rae’s friendship with Reuben, the Jewish New York union organizer. Despite a tentative beginning, when she asks in all innocence whether he has horns 2, they soon become friends. They banter, he talks to her about ideas and gives her books to open her mind, and generally encourages her to express herself. While there’s a hint or two of romance, it never happens. Instead, she marries an old friend of hers, Sonny (Beau Bridges), with a sweet scene of their courtship on a picnic with their three children playing happily. Bridges’ role in this film is severely abbreviated, however, confined to about four or five scenes, and we never get a real sense of their relationship. There’s the obligatory “You’re not taking care of me and the kids” scene, which, ugh. Fields and Bridges act it well, and I suppose given the times that it had to be there, but it’s nothing earthshaking.

The movie builds up to its most powerful scene, the famous moment when Rae makes a sign saying “UNION” and holds it up in the mill. Gradually each worker stops their machine and stands in solidarity with her. It’s a breathtaking moment. Alas, this level of tension is absent from most of the movie. As talented as Fields is, and as sweet as her friendship is with Reuben, the plot is rather dull. The mill owners don’t really start fighting Rae and the union until the last half hour of an almost two hour movie. It doesn’t make for a very tense drama.

Bottom line: Fields is excellent and deserved her Best Actress award. Norma Rae in general, however, is only OK, and I think was only nominated for Best Picture because of Fields’ performance. Despite that, however, it’s well worth watching if only for the rare happy ending, which apparently will never again happen in my lifetime. Thanks, Bezos.

(Side note: Norma Rae also won Best Original Song for “It Goes Like It Goes”. It’s a marvelous, moving song, quite beautiful, and the second best song nominated that year. It did not, however, deserve to win over “The Rainbow Connection”.)