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Norma Rae is a 1979 American drama film directed by Martin Ritt from a screenplay written by Harriet Frank Jr. and Irving Ravetch. Based on the true story of Crystal Lee Sutton,[4][5] which was told in the 1975 book Crystal Lee, a Woman of Inheritance by New York Times reporter Henry P. Leifermann,[6] the film stars Sally Field in the titular role. Beau Bridges, Ron Leibman, Pat Hingle, Barbara Baxley, and Gail Strickland are featured in supporting roles. The film's narrative follows Norma Rae, a factory worker from a small town in North Carolina who becomes involved in unionizing activities at the textile factory where she works after her and her co-workers' health is compromised due to poor working conditions.[7]

Norma Rae
Norma rae ver2.jpg
Theatrical release poster
Directed byMartin Ritt
Produced byTamara Asseyev
Alex Rose
Written byHarriet Frank Jr.
Irving Ravetch
StarringSally Field
Beau Bridges
Ron Leibman
Music byDavid Shire
CinematographyJohn A. Alonzo
Edited bySidney Levin
Distributed by20th Century Fox
Release date
  • March 2, 1979 (1979-03-02)[1]
Running time
110 minutes
CountryUnited States
Budget$4.5 million[2]
Box office$22 million[3]

Norma Rae premiered at the 32nd Cannes Film Festival where it competed for the Palme d'Or, while Field received the Prix d'interprétation féminine. The film was released theatrically on March 2, 1979, and upon its release was a critical and commercial success with critics appreciating the film's direction, screenplay, message and performances (in particular Field's), while the film grossed $22 million on a production budget of $4.5 million.

It received four Academy Award nominations at the 52nd Academy Awards including for Best Picture, and won two: Best Actress (Field) and Best Original Song for its theme song, "It Goes Like It Goes."[8] The film was selected for preservation at the National Film Registry of the Library of Congress in 2011, deemed as being "culturally, aesthetically or historically significant".


Norma Rae Webster is a worker in a cotton mill that has taken too much of a toll on the health of her family for her to ignore their poor working conditions. She is also a single mother with two children by different fathers, one dead and the other negligent, and frequently has flings with other men to alleviate her loneliness and boredom. Initially, management tries to divert her frequent protests by promoting her to "spot checker," where she is responsible for making sure other workers are fulfilling work quotas. She reluctantly takes the job for the pay hike, but when fellow employees, including her own father, shun her for effectively being a "fink" to the bosses, she demands to be fired. Instead, she is demoted back to the line.

Two men enter her life that change her perspective. A former co-worker, Sonny Webster, asks her out after earlier causing trouble for her at the mill. Divorced with a daughter, he proposes marriage after a short courtship; recognizing how long it has been since she met a non-selfish man to keep company with, she accepts his offer. And after a few charged encounters with a union organizer from New York City, Reuben Warshowsky, Norma Rae listens to him deliver a speech that spurs her to join the effort to unionize her shop. This causes conflict at home when Sonny observes she's not spending enough time in the home and is frequently exhausted when she is present. When her father drops dead at the mill of a heart attack, a death that could have been averted had he been allowed to leave his post early instead of wait for his allotted break, she is more determined to continue the fight.

Management retaliates against the organization efforts, first by rearranging shifts so that workers are doing more work at less pay, and then by posting fliers with racial invective in the hope of dividing white and black workers and diluting the momentum. Warshowsky demands Norma copy down the racist flier word for word in order to use it as evidence for government sanctions against her mill. When she attempts to transcribe the flier, management attempts to stop her, then fire her on grounds of creating a disturbance, and call the police to remove her from the plant. While awaiting the sheriff, Norma Rae takes a piece of cardboard, writes the word "UNION" on it, stands on her work table, and slowly turns to show the sign around the room. One by one, the other workers stop their mill machines, and eventually, the entire room becomes silent. After all the machines have been switched off, Norma Rae is taken to jail but is freed by Reuben.

Upon returning home to her family, Norma decides to talk to her children and tell them the story of her life, their questionable parentage, and recent arrest, so that they are prepared for any smears that may come from those hoping to discredit her efforts. After a tense exchange with Reuben, Sonny asks her if they have been intimate; she says no, but acknowledges "he's in my head." Sonny, in turn, tells her there's no other woman in his head and he will always remain with her.

An election to unionize the factory takes place, with Norma and Reuben listening as best as possible from outside the mill as reporters and TV cameras observe the vote count. With a difference shy of 100 votes, the result is a victory for the union. Shortly after, Reuben says goodbye to Norma; despite his being smitten with her, they shake hands because he knows she is married and loves her husband, and Reuben heads back to New York.


The story is based on Crystal Lee Sutton's life as a textile worker in Roanoke Rapids, North Carolina, where the battle for the workers' union took place against a J.P. Stevens Textiles mill. Her actual protest in the mill is the scene in the film where she writes the sign "UNION" and stands on her worktable until all machines are silent. Although Sutton was fired from her job, the mill was unionized, and she later went to work as an organizer for the textile union.[9]


Production notesEdit

Norma Rae was filmed on location in Opelika, Alabama. The mill scenes were shot at the Opelika Manufacturing Corp., and the motel scenes were filmed at The Golden Cherry Motel.[10]


Vincent Canby of The New York Times raved about Field's performance, declaring that "we are witnessing one of those unusual motion picture performances that seems to be in the process of taking off as we watch it ... Her triumph in 'Norma Rae' is to have shucked off at long last all need to associate her with her TV beginnings, not because they are vulgar but because the performance she gives here is a big as the screen that presents it."[11] Variety wrote, "'Norma Rae' is a superb film. Paced by Sally Field's best performance to date in a rapidly accelerating career, and under Martin Ritt's firm but sensitive direction, the 20th Century-Fox release is that rare entity, an intelligent film with heart."[12] Gene Siskel of the Chicago Tribune gave the film 2.5 stars out of 4 and praised Field for a "thoroughly winning performance," but thought that Leibman gave a "lousy, overbearing performance that, for me, wrecked the movie."[13] Charles Champlin of the Los Angeles Times called the film "a wonderful and—for want of a better word—judicious work."[14] Penelope Gilliatt of The New Yorker wrote, "This picture is historically fascinating in what it tells us of the labor movement, and it does honor to a particular sort of involved character who will not be indimidated. Well done."[15] Gary Arnold of The Washington Post stated that "Sally Field embodies the title character with considerable sincerity," but "the movie comes so unraveled that in retrospect the images of loose strands of fiber in the air seem more significant than the character of the heroine or the bleak factory environment. The screenplay by Irving Ravetch and Harriet Frank Jr. ... turns out to be a pile of loose thematic and emotional strands."[16] Tom Milne of The Monthly Film Bulletin wrote, "Heart-warming is probably the word for Norma Rae, a film which leaves no cliché unturned in its cosy efforts to demonstrate how a woman no better than she ought to be becomes better than most of us."[17]

The film currently holds a score of 88% on Rotten Tomatoes based on 25 reviews.[18]

Awards and honorsEdit

The film Norma Rae won Academy Awards for Best Actress in a Leading Role (Sally Field) and Best Original Song (David Shire and Norman Gimbel for "It Goes Like It Goes"). It was also nominated for Best Picture and for Best Writing, Screenplay Based on Material from Another Medium. The film was also nominated to the Palme d'Or (Golden Palm) at the 1979 Cannes Film Festival and Field was awarded Best Actress, in Cannes, for her performance.

In 2011, Norma Rae was selected for the United States National Film Registry by the Library of Congress as being "culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant".[19]

The film is recognized by American Film Institute in these lists:

Home media releasesEdit

Norma Rae was released on VHS in December 1996, on DVD in December 2006, and Blu-ray in April 2014.

Musical adaptationEdit

In December 2017, it was announced that Norma Rae is being adapted into a stage musical. Rosanne Cash is set to compose the score.[23]


  1. ^ "Norma Rae - Details". AFI Catalog of Feature Films. American Film Institute. Retrieved May 18, 2019.
  2. ^ Aubrey Solomon, Twentieth Century Fox: A Corporate and Financial History, Scarecrow Press, 1989 p259
  3. ^ "Norma Rae, Box Office Information". Box Office Mojo. Retrieved June 6, 2013.
  4. ^ Obituary New York Times, September 15, 2009.
  5. ^ Obituary Los Angeles Times, September 20, 2009.
  6. ^ Crystal Lee, a Woman of Inheritance, Henry P. Leifermann, Macmillan (1975), ISBN 0-02-570220-3
  7. ^ "Festival de Cannes: Norma Rae". Retrieved 2009-05-24.
  8. ^ "The 52nd Academy Awards". Retrieved May 18, 2019.
  9. ^ Eric Leif Davin, "Crystal Lee," In These Times, March 5–18, 1980, pp. 16-17.
  10. ^ Rhodes, Guy (April 23, 2009). "When Norma Rae came to town". Retrieved June 2, 2013.
  11. ^ Canby, Vincent (March 11, 1979). "Sally Field's 'Norma Rae' Is A Triumph". The New York Times. D19, D24.
  12. ^ "Film Reviews: Norma Rae". Variety. February 28, 1979. 20.
  13. ^ Siskel, Gene (March 2, 1979). "'Norma Rae': A lot of heart, a lot of Field". Chicago Tribune. Section 4, p. 12.
  14. ^ Champlin, Charles (February 25, 1979). "'Norma Rae': Two Threads Woven Through the Mill". Los Angeles Times. Calendar, p. 37.
  15. ^ Gilliatt, Penelope (March 19, 1979). "The Current Cinema". The New York Times. 128.
  16. ^ Arnold, Gary (March 7, 1979). "'Norma Rae': Haymaker for The Heartstrings". The Washington Post. B1, B5.
  17. ^ Milne, Tom (August 1979). "Norma Rae". The Monthly Film Bulletin. 46 (547): 181.
  18. ^ "Norma Rae". Rotten Tomatoes. Retrieved May 18, 2019.
  19. ^ "2011 National Film Registry More Than a Box of Chocolates". Library of Congress. December 28, 2011. Retrieved December 29, 2011.
  20. ^ "AFI's 100 Years...100 Heroes & Villains" (PDF). American Film Institute. Retrieved 2016-08-14.
  21. ^ "AFI's 100 Years...100 Songs Nominees" (PDF). Retrieved 2016-08-14.
  22. ^ "AFI's 100 Years...100 Cheers" (PDF). American Film Institute. Retrieved 2016-08-14.
  23. ^

External linksEdit