AFI Catalog of Feature Films
Movie Detail
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Norma Rae
Director: Martin Ritt (Dir)
Release Date:   1979
Premiere Information:   Los Angeles and New York openings: 2 Mar 1979
Production Date:   1 May--28 Jun 1978 in Opelika, Alabama
Duration (in mins):   114
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Cast:   Sally Field (Norma Rae [Wilson/Webster])  
    Ron Leibman (Reuben [Warshovsky])  
    Beau Bridges (Sonny [Webster])  
    Pat Hingle (Vernon [Witchard])  
  co-starring Barbara Baxley (Leona [Witchard])  
  co-starring Gail Strickland (Bonnie Mae)  
  featuring Morgan Paull (Wayne Billings)  
  featuring Robert Broyles (Sam Bolen)  
  featuring John Calvin (Ellis Harper)  
  featuring Booth Colman (Dr. Watson)  
  featuring Lee DeBroux (Lujan)  
  featuring James Luisi (George Benson)  
  featuring Vernon Weddle (Reverend Hubbard)  
  featuring Gilbert Green (Al London)  
  featuring Bob Minor (Lucius White)  
  featuring Mary Munday (Mrs. Johnson)  
  featuring Jack Stryker (J. J. [Jimmy Jerome] Davis)  
  featuring Gregory Walcott (Lamar Miller)  
  featuring Noble Willingham (Leroy Mason)  
  and Lonnie Chapman (Gardner)  
    Bert Freed (Sam Dakin)  
    Bob E. Hannah (Jed Buffum)  
    Edith Ivey (Louise Pickens)  
    Scott Lawton (Craig)  
    Frank McRae (James Brown)  
    Gerald OKuneff (Pinkerton man)  
    Gina Kaye Pounders (Millie)  
    Henry Slate (Policeman)  
    Melissa Ann Wait (Alice)  
    Joe A. Dorsey (Woodrow Thompson)  
    Sherry Velvet Foster (Velma Stackhouse)  
    Grace Zabriskie (Linette Odum)  
    Stuart Culpepper (Ray Towner)  
    Weona T. Brown (Hot dog vendor)  
    Carolyn Danforth (Mavis Pruitt)  
    James W. Harris (Mill worker)  
    Charlie Briggs (Warren Latting)  
    Billie Joyce Buck (Agnes Roy)  
    Fred Covington (Alston Purvis)  
    J. Don Ferguson (Peter Gallat)  
    Sandra Dorsey (Jail matron)  
    Harold E. Finch (Agent )  
    Clayton Landey (Teddy Bob Keeler)  
    William Pannell (Billy Stettin)  
    George Robertson (Farmer)  
    Thomas D. Samford, III (Justice of the peace)  
    J. Roy Tatum (Woodrow Bowzer)  

Summary: In the summer of 1978, Norma Rae Wilson and her parents, Leona and Vernon Witchard, are among the laborers who operate the noisy weaving machines at the O.P. Henley textile mill in the small, Southern town of Henleyville. On her lunch break, Norma notices that her mother’s hearing is damaged and rushes her to the factory doctor, Dr. Watson, who dismisses the deafness as temporary. His lack of concern angers her. At home, Norma helps her father clean the kitchen and encourages her two children, Craig and Millie, to do their homework. As she is preparing to go out, Reuben Warshovsky, a labor organizer from New York City, arrives at the door inquiring about renting a room with a mill family. Although Vernon has never received a raise, he states that Reuben and his union are not welcomed. That evening, Norma meets her lover, George Benson, at a motel. Following sex, Norma tells George that she no longer wants to continue the affair, and he slaps her. As Norma leaves the room, she sees Reuben who has just checked into the motel. After he prepares an ice pack for her bleeding nose, she apologizes for her father’s rudeness and says that Reuben is the first Jewish person she has ever met. Outside the Henley mill, Reuben hands out leaflets for the TWUA (Textile Workers Union of America). A factory supervisor, Jimmy Jerome Davis, states that a union organizer seems to arrive every four years, just like the locusts. During her shift, Norma is informed that she is being promoted to spot-checking. Gardner, her boss, hopes that the raise will encourage her to complain less. With a clipboard in hand, she records worker productivity, including her father’s, who resents her new authority. When she monitors an employee named Sonny Webster, he begins to act silly and taunts her. Norma is not amused, warning him that his behavior could get them fired. That night, Sonny stops by Norma’s house to apologize, explaining that he was wound up after receiving divorce papers earlier, and invites her out for a drink. She accepts, ignoring her father’s disapproval about going out with another, new man. As she starts her shift one morning, Norma notices that the workers, who are also her friends, will not talk to her. When one of them calls her a “fink,” she announces to Gardner that she is quitting, recognizing that she is being used to identify the slow laborers so the company can eliminate them. Refusing to fire Norma because of her family’s long history with the mill, he reassigns her to the weaving room. She smiles when her friend Bonnie Mae welcomes her back as one of them. One afternoon, Sonny drives Norma, along with her children and his daughter, Alice, to the lake. While the kids are playing, he proposes to Norma, reasoning that as single parents they can help each other. Soon afterwards, Sonny and Norma are married. Sometime later, Norma attends a meeting organized by Reuben who gives a persuasive speech about exploitation in the textile industry and urges everyone to sign a union card. On another day, Norma observes Reuben’s tenacity as he inspects the factory bulletin boards to confirm that the TWUA notices are posted. Before long, she shows up at his motel room, now a makeshift office, to ask if participation with the union will jeopardize her job. After Reuben reassures her, Norma signs up. As she campaigns for the union during a work break, supervisor Lujan harasses Norma, but she is not intimidated. When Reverend Hubbard refuses to let her use the church for a union meeting because it will include African-Americans and whites, she organizes the gathering at her home, despite Sonny’s protest. During the meeting, the workers describe the prison-like conditions at the factory, and one woman speaks about her husband who recently died from “brown lung.” Afterward, Reuben is worried, since his campaign has only attracted seventeen workers, so Norma suggests they reach out to people along the back roads. During an evening at home, Norma is busy making calls on behalf of the union when Sonny complains that she is neglecting her responsibilities as a wife and mother. Provoked, she begins charging through household chores until Sonny calms her. One day during his shift, Vernon’s arm goes numb and he wants to lie down, but the floor supervisor advises him to carry on until his upcoming break. He tries to continue, but suddenly collapses and dies. Following Vernon’s death, Reuben’s motel office is crowded with volunteers. When Norma yells at someone for being late, Reuben kicks her out of the office; however, he follows her to a nearby diner, assuring her that she is the “Mother Jones” of their cause. One evening, Al London and Sam Dakin, officials with TWUA’s national headquarters, arrive at the motel, worried about Reuben’s association with Norma. In her presence, they complain to Reuben that she has an illegitimate child and a promiscuous reputation, which the mill can use to tarnish the union’s image. Screaming, Reuben staunchly defends her and orders the men to leave. Sometime later, Norma calls Reuben from the factory to notify him of an incendiary letter posted by the company, declaring that African-Americans are going to take over the union. As Reuben meets her at the gates, a group of white workers are beating up an African-American because of his union sympathies. If Norma cannot obtain the letter, Reuben tells her to memorize it and then write it down. During her break, Norma is able to replicate most of the letter on a piece of toilet paper, but Reuben criticizes her for not getting the entirety, reiterating that the union needs the exact wording to take legal action. The next day, Norma furiously copies the letter in front of her supervisors. Leroy Mason, the top manager, orders her to put down the pencil and paper. In his office, Norma remains defiant, and Mason demands that she immediately leave the factory. In the weaving room, a guard tries to escort her out, but she resists. Among the din of the machines, Norma writes “UNION” on a piece of cardboard and stands on a table holding it above her head. As the workers look up, they begin to switch off their machines until the factory floor is quiet. When Sheriff Lamar Miller arrives, Norma proudly walks out of the building with him, but once outside, she realizes that he is arresting her and not taking her home. While she kicks and screams, they force her into the police car. At the station, Norma is booked for disorderly conduct, but Reuben posts bail later that evening. As she cries from the trauma of the experience, Reuben instructs her that being arrested is minor when compared to the real dangers of union organizing. As soon as she gets home, Norma wakes up her children to disclose her arrest, her imperfect past and the identity of their fathers, so that they will be prepared when people gossip about her. Even though it got her fired, she explains to them that she believes in the union. Sometime later, a crowd of workers waits inside the factory while the union vote is counted. Outside, Norma and Reuben listen to the cheers when the result is announced in favor of the union. Norma holds back tears while she walks Reuben to his car, which is packed for his trip back to New York. After thanking each other, they shake hands, and Norma watches him drive away. 

Production Company: Twentieth Century-Fox Film Corp.  
Production Text: a Martin Ritt/Rose and Asseyev production
Distribution Company: Twentieth Century-Fox Film Corp.  
Director: Martin Ritt (Dir)
  Jack Terry (Unit prod mgr)
  James Nicholson (Asst dir)
  Glenn "Skip" Surguine (2d asst dir)
Producer: Tamara Asseyev (Prod)
  Alex Rose (Prod)
Writer: Irving Ravetch (Scr)
  Harriet Frank Jr. (Scr)
Photography: John A. Alonzo (Dir of photog)
  Earl Gilbert (Gaffer)
  Gary Dodd (Key grip)
  John Toll (Cam op)
  Panavision® (Photographic equip by)
Art Direction: Walter Scott Herndon (Prod des)
  Tracy Bousman (Art dir)
Film Editor: Sidney Levin (Ed)
  Cliffe Oland (Asst ed)
  Margaret Adachi (Asst ed)
Set Decoration: Gregory Garrison (Set dec)
  Richard Reseigne (Const coord)
  R. Dudley "Ace" Holmes (Prop master)
Costumes: Michael J. Harte (Men`s cost)
  Agnes J. Lyon (Ladies' cost)
Music: David Shire (Mus)
  Robert Raff (Mus ed)
Sound: Bruce Bisenz (Prod mixer)
  William Hartman (Sd ed)
  Richard Sperber (Sd ed)
  Godfrey Marks (Dial ed)
  Theodore Soderberg (Re-rec mixer)
  Paul Wells (Re-rec mixer)
  Douglas O. Williams (Re-rec mixer)
Special Effects: William Van Der Byl (Spec eff)
Make Up: Tom Ellingwood (Makeup)
  William Turner (Makeup)
  Lola "Skip" McNalley (Hairstylist)
Production Misc: Mike Fenton (Casting)
  Jane Feinberg (Casting)
  Golda David (Asst to Martin Ritt)
  H. "Bud" Otto (Scr supv)
  James Koehler (Loc auditor)
  Jerry Johnson (Transportation coord)
  Marilyn Tasso (Prod coord)
MPAA Rating: PG
Country: United States
Language: English

Music: "It Goes Like It Goes," sung by Jennifer Warnes, courtesy of Arista Records, lyrics by Norman Gimbel, music by David Shire.
Composer: Norman Gimbel
  David Shire
Source Text:

Copyright Claimant Copyright Date Copyright Number
Twentieth Century-Fox Film Corporation 3/4/1979 dd/mm/yyyy PA31596

PCA NO: 25356
Physical Properties: Sd:
  col: Color by DeLUXE®

Genre: Drama
Sub-Genre: Rural
Subjects (Major): Labor agitators
  Textile mills
  Trade unions
  Women laborers
Subjects (Minor): Antisemitism
  Cotton mills
  Factory management
  Factory workers
  Occupational diseases
  Rural life
  United States--South

Note: The end credits contain the acknowledgement: "our thanks for the cooperation and assistance of THE ALABAMA FILM COMMISSION."
       According to production notes in AMPAS library files and interviews from the Jun 1979 issue of Millimeter and the 4 Mar 1979 LAT, the project originated with producers Tamara Asseyev and Alex Rose after they read a profile article by Henry P. Leifermann in the 5 Aug 1973 NYT Magazine about cotton mill worker Crystal Lee Jordan, later known as Crystal Lee Sutton, who worked at the J.P. Stevens plant in Roanoke Rapids, NC, and became involved in the union in 1973 after meeting labor organizer, Eli Zivkovich. Subsequently, Leifermann wrote the book Crystal Lee: A Woman of Inheritance, published by Macmillan in 1975. When the producers showed director Martin Ritt an excerpt from the 1973 article, he immediately “fell in love” with Crystal Lee. He recommended hiring husband and wife screenwriters Irving Ravetch and Harriet Frank, Jr., with whom he had collaborated on five previous films.
       Columbia Pictures, Warner Bros. and United Artists turned down the project. As explained in a 25 Feb 1979 NYT article, Alan Ladd Jr., President at Twentieth Century-Fox Film Corp., acquired it after Ritt convinced him that the film would be perceived as uplifting and not depressing. Some of Fox’s recent successes were also risky, unconventional stories about women, including The Turning Point (1977, see entry), An Unmarried Woman (1978, see entry) and Julia (1977, see entry). During negotiations with the studio, Ritt agreed to cut his salary in half to $250,000.
       As outlined in articles from the 2 Mar 1979 DV, the 4 Mar 1979 LAT and the 30 Apr 1979 People, problems arose in obtaining permission to depict the story’s real-life subjects. In the summer of 1977, the producers optioned the screen rights to Leifermann’s book. As part of the process, the author mailed Crystal Lee a release form, offering the token price of one dollar. Naive about the legalities, she signed the form and mistakenly returned it with one dollar. However, North Carolina law required that the subject of a film portrayal provide explicit consent, irrespective of any literary arrangement. Therefore, Fox asked for additional releases from the three central personalities, Crystal Lee (“Norma Rae”), Zivkovich (“Reuben”) and Crystal Lee’s second husband, Larry Jordan (“Sonny”). The attorney for the three parties pushed for script approval, to which Ritt would not agree. Later, in an interview for the 14 Mar 1980 HR, Crystal Lee admitted that she was “misadvised” on this matter, since she did not understand that directors rarely permit script approval. She also stated that her attorneys turned down a $25,000 payment offer from the production.
       Meanwhile, Barbara Kopple, the documentary filmmaker who won an Academy Award for Harlan County, U.S.A (1977, see entry), was pursuing her own negotiations with Crystal Lee. In Nov 1977, Crystal Lee signed an agreement with Kopple for a feature film about her life and later approved the script written by Stuart Werbin and Todd Meyer. No further information was available in the production file regarding the Kopple project.
       Without authorization from Crystal Lee and the others, the script was changed, resulting in a story based on a “‘a fictionalized composite of several such women’” involved in the unionizing of Southern textile mills, as described by Ritt in the 2 Mar 1979 DV article. During the consultation with Crystal Lee’s attorney, the producers agreed to alter actual names, events, locations, ages and dates, but Ritt refused to compromise on two issues, the descriptions of “Norma Rae” as promiscuous and the scene where she reveals her indiscretions to her children. For Ritt, these points were essential to demonstrate the character’s growth.
       According to a 10 Dec 1978 LAT interview with Sally Field, the casting experience was the first time she did not have to promote herself. Ritt requested her on the basis of her Emmy award-winning performance in the 1976 NBC miniseries, Sybil, and she accepted before reading the script. An 18 Aug 2000 DV review of an episode from the AMC cable television docu-series Backstory about the making of the film mentioned that actresses Jane Fonda, Jill Clayburgh and Marsha Mason turned down the part of “Norma Rae.” In a Fox pressbook in AMPAS files, Ritt stated that “Reuben” was the toughest role to cast, but after testing numerous young actors, he thought of Ron Leibman and asked him to read with Sally Field before offering him the part.
       According to a 28 Jun 1978 Fox press release, the production filmed on location in Opelika, AL from 1 May to 28 Jun 1978. In an interview for the Jun 1979 issue of Millimeter, Ritt stated that the schedule was originally fifty-four days long, but the filmmakers finished in approximately forty. For seventy percent of the shooting, he calculated that they printed the first take. He also credited the efficiency to the fact that a hand-held camera was used for the majority of scenes, with no time-consuming set-ups of dolly tracks. The strategy helped bring the film cost to $4.5 million, $500,000 less than the original budget. As noted in a 17 Mar 1980 LAHExam article, the production filmed at a plant that was already unionized.
       At the time of release, several articles reported that Crystal Lee was contemplating a lawsuit against the filmmakers, pending a screening of the film. In the 4 Mar 1979 LAT article, Ritt responded with frustration, describing Crystal Lee as “no longer the free spirit in my film.”
       Several unions, such as The Amalgamated Clothing and Textile Workers Union and the Retail Store Employees Union, booked movie theaters and showed the film as a promotional tool for their labor campaigns, as reported by items in the 30 Apr 1979 DV and the 23 May 1979 Var. An article in the 12 Mar 2007 The Nation concluded that the film played a key role in a national boycott against J.P Stevens textile products, whose plant in Roanoke Rapids eventually signed a union contract in 1980, the year after Norma Rae opened.
       The film and particularly the performances received enthusiastic reviews from major critics and gradually became a moderate hit at the box office. In the 14 Mar 1980 HR, earnings were reported as $7 million in rentals. A 14 Aug 1985 Var column mentioned that the gross had reached $12 million.
       On 16 Mar 1980, the Screen Actors Guild and the Los Angeles County Federation of Labor co-hosted a benefit to raise funds for the Stevens boycott, which Crystal Lee was helping to publicize on behalf of the Amalgamated Clothing and Textile Workers Union. The event provided the opportunity for Sally Field and Crystal Lee to meet for the first time. The occasion also prompted news reports in the 14 Mar 1980 HR, the 15 Mar 1980 LAT, the 17 Mar 1980 LAHExam and the 18 Mar 1980 LAHExam examining how the film’s financial and critical success had increased Crystal Lee’s profile, but not her fortune. While the film was inspiring audiences, she was working as a hotel maid after being blacklisted by the textile mills. Despite receiving no money from either the book or the film, she stated that union organizing remained her priority, rather than fighting for personal compensation. By now, she was enthusiastic about the film’s potential for helping the union cause; however, she remained critical of how the story was told, because it focused too heavily on her character’s accomplishments, while disregarding the contribution of others.
       In a 16 Apr 1980 item in LAHExam, Field accused Crystal Lee of giving the impression to the media that she was exploited by Ritt and for not being upfront about the initial payment offer that she and her attorneys rejected. In a 14 Aug 1985 Var article, Crystal Lee complained that Fox ignored her request for a 16mm print to show at speaking engagements. The same article reported that her attorneys had finally negotiated a settlement in the amount of $52,000.
       Sally Field’s performance earned numerous awards and accolades for the year 1979, beginning at the Cannes Film Festival and culminating with the Academy Award for Actress in a Leading Role. Additionally, the film received the Academy Award for Music (Original Song) for “It Goes Like It Goes” and was nominated in the categories of Best Picture and Best Writing (Screenplay Based on a Material from Another Medium). In 2011, the film was selected for the Library of Congress’ National Film Registry. It also appeared at #16 on the American Film Institute’s “100 Years…100 Cheers,” a list of the most inspiring films of all time, and the character of “Norma Rae Webster” was #15 on AFI’s ranking of the top 50 heroes, as part of “100 Years...100 Heroes & Villains.”
       According to the 24 Apr 1980 LAHExam, the American Broadcasting Company (ABC) bought the television rights to Norma Rae for just under $5 million. In 1981, Asseyev and Rose produced a television series pilot for the National Broadcasting Company (NBC), also titled Norma Rae, starring Cassie Yates, as reported by a 16 Mar 1981 DV article. 

Bibliographic Sources:   Date   Page
Daily Variety   5 Jan 1979.   
Daily Variety   2 Mar 1979   p. 12, 14.
Daily Variety   7 Mar 1979.   
Daily Variety   30 Apr 1979.   
Daily Variety   16 Mar 1981.   
Daily Variety   19 Mar 1981.   
Daily Variety   18 Aug 2000.   
Hollywood Reporter   18 Oct 1978.   
Hollywood Reporter   21 Feb 1979   p. 3, 15.
Hollywood Reporter   14 Mar 1980.   
LAHExam   17 Mar 1980   Section B, pp. 1-2.
LAHExam   18 Mar 1980   Section B, p. 1, 8.
LAHExam   16 Apr 1980.   
LAHExam   24 Apr 1980.   
Los Angeles Times   10 Dec 1978   Section R, p. 58.
Los Angeles Times   25 Feb 1979   p. 37.
Los Angeles Times   4 Mar 1979   Section T, p. 5.
Los Angeles Times   24 May 1979   Section A, p. 2.
Los Angeles Times   17 Dec 1979   Section E, p. 32.
Los Angeles Times   20 Dec 1979   Section IV, p. 31.
Los Angeles Times   15 Mar 1980   Section OC, p. 22.
Los Angeles Times   6 Jul 1980   Section G, pp. 10-11.
Los Angeles Times   20 Sep 2009   Section A, p. 44.
Millimeter   Jun 1979   pp. 45-46, 48, 178.
Nation   12 Mar 2007.   
New York Times   25 Feb 1979   Section D, p. 1, 19.
New York Times   2 Mar 1979   p. 10.
New York Times   11 Mar 1979   Section D, p. 19, 24.
New York Times   15 Sep 2009   Section B, p. 17.
New York Times   27 Dec 2009   Section SM, p. 35.
New York Times Magazine   5 Aug 1973   pp. 10-11, 25-26.
People   30 Apr 1979   pp. 43-44.
Variety   28 Feb 1979   p. 20.
Variety   23 May 1979.   
Variety   14 Aug 1985.   
Washington Post   24 Jul 1985.   

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