Norma Rae (1979)





Director:    Martin Ritt.

Starring:    Sally Field (Norma Rae),  Ron Leibman (Reuben),  Beau Bridges (Sonny),  Pat Hingle (Vernon),  Barbara Baxley (Leona),  Gail Strickland (Bonnie Mae),  Morgan Paull (Wayne Billings),  Lonny Chapman (Gardner),  Noble Willingham (Leroy Mason),  Grace Zabriskie (Linette Odum).

Oscars: Sally Field as Best Actress; "It Goes as it Goes" sung by Jennifer Warnes as Best Song.

True story of a woman textile worker (Sally Field) being radicalized by New York City labor organizer (Ron Leibman).



Spoiler Warning:  below is a summary of the entire film. 

Textile factory.  It is really noisy with all the looms in action. 

Summer 1978.  Norma Rae is at work.  Her mother works with her.  Norma Rae tries to talk with her mother, but mom doesn't seem to hear her.  So she takes her mother into the doctor's office who is rather nonchalant about the temporary deafness.  He tells Norma Rae:  "You know that happens."  Norma Rae answers with a question:  "It happens?"  She is pretty disgusted and says to her mother:  "They don't care anything about you."

Norma Rae tells her father, Vernon Witchard, that she is going into town.  Dad says he will drive her in.  She doesn't want him to.  A stranger comes up to the door.  He says his name is Reuben Warshovsky and he's a labor organizer come to put a union in the O.P. Henley Textile Mill.  Vernon tells the man:  "You people are communists, agitators, crooks or Jews, or all four rolled together."  He does tell Reuben that he make $1.33 per frame and Reuben tells him that he is both underpaid and overworked.  Dad just runs him off. 

Reuben is getting a room in a motel.  He sees Norma Rae and speaks to her.  He sarcastically tells her:  "Friendly little town you have here."  Meanwhile, Norma Rae goes into a room to continue her affair with a married man.  She tells the man, George, that this will be their last time because he has a wife and two children and there is a lot of gossip going around about him and her (Norma Rae).  He objects, but she says:  "It just doesn't make me feel good."  George ends up hitting Norma Rae.  She has to apply ice to her eye to keep the swelling down.  She asks Reuben:  "You a Jew?"  Reuben answers:  "Born and bred."  Norma Rae goes on to ask what make the Jews so different from anyone else.  Reuben responds:  "What makes us different is history."

Reuben sees Norma Rae again.  She tells him about a guy she was speaking to.  He comes around about every four years asking how she is.  The fellow is her boy's father.  No, they never married.

The boss calls Norma Rae into his office.  He tells her she's got the biggest mouth in the firm.  But he is going to make her a spot-checker and pay her $1.50 per hour.  Norma Rae jumps at the position. 

Norma Rae now patrols the work floor with her time watch and official forms.  She watches her father one day and she tells him to speed it up.  She adds:  "They're watching you.  They're watching me."  At home dad is mad at Norma Rae.  He doesn't like being checked on by his own daughter. 

Reuben tells Norma Rae:  "I think you're too smart for what's happening to you." 

When Norma Rae goes to check on the young worker Sonny, he kinds of goes crazy on her.  He starts running around and hiding and jumping out at Norma Rae. 

The next day Sonny comes to the house and apologizes to Norma Rae for his behavior.  She tells him:  "You sure went crazy on me."  Norma Rae adds that he could have gotten both of them fired at work. 

Norma Rae's father still hovers around her and she doesn't like it.  He says he does this because he loves his girl, but Norma Rae says:  "You're loving me to death!"   

Sonny is out with Norma Rae at a bar.  They both are getting a bit drunk.  Norma Rae calls Reuben over to their table.  Sonny is not enthused about Reuben joining them.  Norma Rae talks about her husband Buddy Wilson.  He died in a bar fight.  The funeral director and her daddy wouldn't let her see her husband's body.  Reuben drives the two drunks home.  Norma asks for Reuben to pull over to the side of the road.  She gets out and throws up. 

The next day Reuben is busy handing out union notices to the textile workers.  Norma Rae comes in to work and speaks to Lucius.  He doesn't talk to her.  She says good morning to Linette Odum, but she won't speak to Norma Rae.  She goes to Billy Joe and he won't talk to her.  Norma Rae demands to know why no one is talking to her.  Billy Joe sums it up with one word:  "Fink!"  Norma Rae marches into her manager's office and tells him that management is deliberately speeding thing ups in order to weed out the slower workers.  The manager admits it's true.  So Norma Rae quits her job and goes back on the line. 

Sonny comes over to take Norma Rae for an outing.  With Norma Rae are her two children.  This surprises Sonny, but he quickly recovers.  Everyone climbs into the pick-up truck and away they go.  Sonny decides to stop at home to pick up his daughter.  So now the two adults and the three children all go out to have some fun.  At the picnic area Sonny tells Norma Rae that she is a pretty woman.  He says he and his daughter Alice are all alone.  He goes on to say:  "If you could help me, maybe I could help you."  Norma Rae tells Sonny to kiss her.  He does so. 

Sonny and Norma Rae get married.  He tells everyone:  "I just hope I can keep up with her." 

Norma Rae goes to a union meeting in a local church.  Reuben tells his small audience that the textile industry is the only non-unionized industry in the country.  He tells everyone to come over to his hotel room and pick up a union card and join the union. 

Reuben comes into the company to check if his union notices are up on the two bulletin boards.  At the first bulletin board, the notice is way up at the top.  He asks the company men to move the notice down to eye level.  He threatens to bring his lawyer in to this matter if they won't cooperate with him.  Management brings the notice down to eye level.  Reuben then is taken to the second bulletin board.  The notice is there, but it is behind a lot of items placed in front of the bulletin board.  Reuben gets management to move the items blocking the bulletin board. 

Norma Rae comes over to Reuben's hotel room.  She decides to join the union.  Reuben tells her that she is the fish he wanted to hook.  Her full name is Norma Rae Webster. 

Norma Rae goes to her minister and tells him that she wants to use his church for a union meeting place.  The minister refuses to allow it.  Norma Rae says he'll hear them shouting from inside another church.

Norma Rae brings some black workers home with her.  Sonny objects to this, telling Norma Rae:  "There's a bunch of black men in there.  You're going to get us into a whole lot of trouble."  Reuben is there and he asks the workers to speak out this time.  It doesn't take long before men and women start complaining about management excesses.  Linette tells how her husband died of brown lung disease. 

Reuben tells Norma Rae that he is disappointed at the turn-out.  He only got 17 out of 800 people.  Norma Rae says he is an outsider.  Reuben asks Norma Rae if she has any ideas.  Norma Rae tells him that they are going out on the back roads to speak to the people. 

It's a very hot day.  Reuben swims naked in the old mud hole.  Norma Rae takes off her blouse and goes into the water.  Reuben tells her she would just love New York City.  It has opera, theater and ballet.  

Norma Rae is working late at night on the phone.  Sonny comes in from the bedroom and starts complaining that both he and she are not getting any sleep these days.  He takes the milk out of the refrigerator just to find that it is sour milk by now.  Sonny complains that she is not doing her wifely duties and she sure didn't get to him lately.  He says:  "I'm going without all together."  Norma Rae starts going a little crazy running around pretending she is doing all her chores at once.  Sonny gives up, calms down and then calms Norma Rae down. 

Norma Rae hands out union information at work.  She sees her daddy and goes over to him.  She thinks he's been drinking a bit too much lately and he admits it's true.  He says he's getting old and worn out.  Norma Rae comments:  "Don't talk old to me!  I don't like it."

Norma Rae works with Reuben in his hotel room.  She says she really ought to be going home.  She asks Reuben how is it going for his girlfriend Dorothy?  It's going fine.  His mother really likes Dorothy.  Norma Rae now asks about the Dylan Thomas book Reuben has been reading.  Dylan Thomas (1914-1953) was a Welsh poet and writer.  One of his famous lines was:  "Rage, rage against the dying of the light." 

Reuben is ready to hold a union meeting but nobody shows up.  He goes to see one of the workers named Warren.  Warren tells him that the company has got the workers on a stretch-out, meaning that the workers now have to do in three days what they did in five days.  It's twice as much work for half the pay.  And Warren says:  "All on account of you."  Warren then goes to the kitchen and comes back with a pot of water with six turnips in it.  He says this is dinner:  six turnips for seven people.  He tells Reuben:  "Sell your union someplace else."

At work Norma Rae's father complains to a supervisor that his arm has gone numb.  The manager tells him to wait for his break and then see to the arm.  Dad tells the manager that he thinks he better tend to it right now, but the manager insists that he wait for his break.  Norma Rae's father goes back to work but soon collapses.  Many of the union members attend the funeral of Norma Rae's father. 

Reuben now has a lot of volunteers working for him.  A worker volunteer comes in late and Norma Rae balls him out for it.  This upsets the worker and Reuben has to intervene.  He tells Norma Rae to leave.  She goes out and Reuben tries to soothe the balled-out worker.  Later Reuben comes over to the diner where Norma Rae is having coffee and a piece of apple pie.  He jokes with her:  "Mouth, you're too muscular."  Norma Rae admits she can be a bit much at times. 

Two men come into Reuben's hotel room.  Only Norma Rae is there and she was asleep on the bed.  The men ask where Reuben is and she says he's at the printers.  They then ask if she is Norma Rae?  She says:  "I'm Mrs. Webster."  Reuben comes in the room.  The two men are from union headquarters and they complain to Reuben that he is not making much progress.  And there has been some nasty gossip about him and Norma Rae.  It's been said that Norma Rae made a porno movie with a cop and that she has had an illegitimate child.  This make Reuben mad and he refers to the two men as being members of the puritanical Legion of Decency.  About the charges, he says:  "Make it stick or get the hell out of here!"  In fact, he says, they may as well get out now.  The two men leave.   

Management puts up on the bulletin board a charge that the blacks are trying to take over the union.  A group of white male workers start beating up one of the black workers.  Other workers have to rescue the black man.  Reuben tells Norma Rae to get in there and get that bulletin down word for word.  He adds that this is the best chance they have had to get at management.  She tries to memorize it, but can't remember half of the material.  Reuben tells her to go back in, and, on her break, copy the whole thing down on a piece of paper.  This, however, causes a big scene between her and management who don't want her writing the notice down word for word.  Norma Rae answers to the boss, Mr. Mason:  "I started this and I'm going to finish it."  Mason tells her to come to his office.  In the office Norma Rae asks the men to give their names and spell the names out so she can get it down on paper.  Mason tells her:  "I want you out of here now." 

Norma goes out on the shop floor.  She tells security:  "I ain't leaving!"  She jumps up on a table, writes down the word "union" on a large piece of paper and holds the paper up for all to see.  The workers stare at her, but then Norma's mother turns off her machine.  Then worker after worker shuts down their machines until the floor is completely silent. 

The sheriff, Lamar Miller, arrives and he tells Norma to come down from the table.  She does so, but yells to everyone that Lamar Miller is going to take her, Norma Rae, straight home.  She goes out with security, but soon realizes she's not going home.  She shouts:  "You're taking me to jail!"  She really  fights hard not to be placed in the back seat of the police car.  They finally get her inside and take off for the jail. 

Norma Rae is charged with disorderly conduct.  She doesn't call Sonny, but Reuben to get her out of jail.  She cries in the car as Reuben drives her home.  He tells her:  "It comes with the job.  You just got your feet wet on this one."

Norma Rae goes into the house and wakes her children.  They go into the living room to talk.  She tells them that they are going to hear a lot of bad things about their mother.  She is a jailbird and they will be hearing that word and a lot of other nasty words.  She admits that she has had a lot of men in her life, that she has made mistakes.  She then gives her two biological children pictures of their different fathers.  She goes on to say she got fired from her job for working for the union.  She kisses all the children and sends them to bed. 

While Norma Rae goes to take a bath, Sonny asks Reuben why did she call him rather than her husband?  He says his wife is all changed and he didn't want that.  Reuben says his wife is a free woman and she can make her own decisions.  He says he hopes Sonny can live with that.  He leaves.

Sonny asks his wife if she ever slept with Reuben?  She says:  "No, but he's in my head."  Sonny tells her that there is just her in his head and nobody else. 

Management counts the votes on the question of the union.  The count against the union is 373 and the count for the union is 427.  A big yell goes up from all the union supporters. 

Reuben tells Norma Rae that he is now going back to New York.  He then asks Norma Rae what is she going to do now?  She says:  "Live, what else?"  She then tells Reuben:  "You've done something for me!"  He responds:  "Well, you did something for us."  He adds that she should be happy and be well and that he would like to thank her for her companionship, stamina, horse sense and her 101 laughs.  He then adds to the list her shiny hair and shiny face.  Norma Rae replies:  "Reuben, I think you like me."  They shake hands and Reuben leaves for New York City. 


Terrific movie.  And boy that Sally Field really did an excellent job.  And the Flying Nun was looking pretty sharp in the film.  She deserved her Oscar win for best actress.  I just recently watched the movie Harlan County War.  The character Ruby in that film is very much like the character of Norma Rae in this film.  Both women are very strong emotionally, can speak to people individually and in groups and are hard workers with a giant commitment to the union movement for better treatment of the workers.  And both female characters stand up against their husbands when they start complaining and continue to persevere.  Both films are very inspiring and both had very strong performances by the main actresses as the heroines of the films.

Patrick Louis Cooney,  Ph. D. 


Historical Background:


From the Special Features sections we get some history.  The film was made in 1978 about a woman who risked everything for justice.  Her name was Crystal Lee Jordan and she was the leader of the workers at J. P. Stevens and Company.  The company waged a 20 year battle against unionization of the textile industry.  The site of the battle for Jordan was Roanoke Rapids, North Carolina.  Crystal Lee faced death threats, she was thrown in jail and she lost her job.  The section on the film says that the character of Norma Rae is embedded in our imaginations ". . . as a symbol of the strength of the human spirit." 



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