1979 was a year when modest sleeper movies won big. Two of them occupy special places in my heart, perhaps because at age 22 I was in transition at the time. I was just out of college, underemployed and nearly broke. I also was not sure what I was going to do with my life. Breaking Away spoke to my underwhelming transitional feelings toward my new adult life. Dennis Christopher, who played the biker Dave Stoller in Breaking Away, had an uncanny physical resemblance to me. In addition, he exuded all my early 20’s awkwardness. Norma Rae, starring Sally Field as the unlikely union organizer Norma Rae Watson, spoke to my feelings of disempowerment while I worked as a vastly underpaid retail drone at a local Montgomery Ward.
Sally Field plays a young and attractive mill worker whose personal life is in something of a shambles. She has two children, one out of wedlock. She and her kids live with her parents, who also work at the mill. Norma is the epitome of poor white southern trash. She is seemingly destined to cater to dysfunctional married men looking for a quick orgasm for the price of a steak dinner. Things slowly change when a union organizer named Reuben (Ron Liebman) arrives from New York. He is charged with the likely futile task of convincing the workers of the mill in this hot and sticky Southern town to unionize. In part because Reuben is forced to take a room at Norma’s favorite No-Tel motel their lives begin to intersect.
In Norma Rae, Director Martin Ritt very well captures the poverty, ugliness, hassles and facelessness of the working class. Most of the extras appear to be local townies. Sally Field seemed an unlikely choice for this part since she had hardly shaken off the typecasting from her Flying Nun days. Yet from the start, she feels like one of the townies. Norma Rae lives in a mill town in the very Deep South, an area known for its hostility toward unions. Blacks and whites work together at the mill, but racism lingers close to its surface. Virtually everyone has working class poverty and their job at the mill in common.
Sally Field won Best Actress for her role as Norma Rae Watson. Throughout much of the movie, she would seem an unlikely choice, since there is little in her acting that comes across as particularly noteworthy. It is only as Norma Rae is increasingly exposed to the stresses of being a union organizer that, much as a locomotive builds up a head of steam, we discover what Sally Field is capable of. It is hard not to be dazzled by her explosion of deft acting in the final fifteen minutes of the film. If you have seen the movie, you will know the scene. It is one of these great scenes in Hollywood cinema. I suspect Sally Field won the award principally for this scene, and yet she also shines in more measured scenes in the film’s denouement.
An impossibly young Beau Bridges (well, it is 28 years ago) plays her husband Sonny. Ron Liebman playing the union organizer Reuben is really the film’s principle supporting actor. Steeped in the New York City culture, Reuben gives Norma Rae a perspective of the world outside her insular southern town where she has lived her life. Regular exposure to Reuben’s intellect and passion begins to rub off on Norma Rae. He provides a means for her to tap her restless spirit for a greater good and thus give her a way to surmount her troubled past.
In some ways, Norma Rae reminded me of Dazed and Confused, but only in the sense that both films caught the sleepy southern town of the 1970s with eerie precision. As you might expect from its academy awards, Norma Rae is a much better movie. Both movies though seem populated with common folk rather than the buffed, skinny and overly pretty types Hollywood typically throws at us.
If you hunger for a powerful human story you should consider renting Norma Rae, whose message about the ability each of us have to rise above ourselves is timeless. I do not think any other movie since the classic It’s a Wonderful Life has told this story as well. Had I thought about it at the time, I would have added Norma Rae to my list of must see movies for progressives.