By Erin Free

“I really have no ulterior motive in taking on certain roles,” Sally Field once said. “I have no larger issue that I really want to show people. I’m an actor, that’s all. I just do what I do.” Though it may have just been the acting challenge that drew Field to the dynamic role of Norma Rae Webster, it is undoubtedly a character that reverberates with larger issues. In a Hollywood that often avoids going near anything even remotely political, director Martin Ritt’s 1979 film, Norma Rae, is powerfully and unapologetically so. But despite its issues-driven kick, the heart and soul of this deeply moving film is its lead character, who is brought to vivid, sparking life by Sally Field in her finest performance.

Based loosely on the real life figure of union organiser, Crystal Lee Jordan, Norma Rae is a smalltown widow with two children who works in the local textile mill, a bleak place ruled by thundering, deafness-inducing machinery and working conditions that could best be described as “old world.” A fear of victimisation and reprisals has prevented unionisation, but when New York-based union organiser, Reuben Warshawsky (Ron Leibman), arrives in town, a gradual sense of change grinds into place. Reuben finds an unlikely ally in the tough but emotionally battered Norma Rae, who has bounced from one bad relationship to the next, but boasts an indomitable spirit that makes her the perfect candidate to inspire change in her colleagues.

Sally Field in Norma Rae
Sally Field in Norma Rae

Though the character ranked #73 on Premiere Magazine’s 100 Greatest Movie Characters Of All Time, and the film clocked in at #16 on The American Film Institute’s 100 Most Inspiring Movies Of All Time, Norma Rae is much more than just an inspirational character. She is resolutely, recognisably real at every turn, whether it’s in the way that she deals with her kids, or in the scorchingly honest manner in which she interacts with the seemingly more “sophisticated” Reuben Warshawsky. The character has several big, defining moments (Norma Rae brazenly brandishing a placard with the word “union” scrawled across it is the film’s most indelible image), but it’s in the nuances and small details that she is so truly fascinating.

Along with her extraordinary work as a girl with multiple personalities in the 1976 television film, Sybil, Norma Rae (for which she won a well-deserved Oscar) was the film that really turned Sally Field’s career around. “Martin Ritt had offered the role to five other women – including Jane Fonda, Marsha Mason, and Jill Clayburgh – and he said that the studio didn’t want me,” Field once explained. “But Marty had seen Sybil and felt that I could do it. That year was so surreal for me. It started with Cannes, where they gave me a 20-minute standing ovation, and then after that I won every single acting award possible. By the time the Oscars came, I was numb.”


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