Note the innocuous poster image of Sally Field in her first Academy Award winning role. She has her arms up like she should be holding her iconic "UNION" sign, but the poster really gives no idea of the content of Martin Ritt's movie. Maybe the studio wanted to mask the serious content of the picture, which were it remade now might be perceived, in some quarters, as a more radical film than the actual film seemed to be in 1979. On the poster, Field is not the drab yet defiant creature of the movie, a character based on a real person on the winning side of a real struggle to unionize a southern textile plant. The poster image is more like the spiritual essence of Norma Rae Webster, whom the film finds a single mother of three, each child having a different father. Once a waitress, according to an opening-credits image, she's now working at the O.P. Henley mill, in a South then seen as the last bastion of resistance to the righteous tide of organized labor. Into town comes Reuben Warshowsky (Ron Leibman), a union organizer from Noo Yawk embarking on the latest campaign to unionize Henley. Early in the action Norma Rae gets a promotion to the spot check department, meaning a precious extra $1.50 an hour. But she knows that it'll make her unpopular with her fellow workers, and the first time she gets called a fink and blamed for someone getting canned she demotes herself back to the ranks. Something matters more than money and security to her, despite her struggle to reassert her independence from her father and co-worker (Pat Hingle). Before long she's getting married to fun-loving Sonny (Beau Bridges) and taking a more active role in Ruben's union campaign. Norma wants autonomy and commitment -- solidarity rather than dependence both at home and at work. Her struggle endangers her job and to a lesser extent her marriage as the bosses scheme to turn the races against each other and Sonny complains about chores left undone.
It all turns around in the film's famous Capra-esque (yet based on fact) moment when, on the brink of being fired and arrested for copying out an inflammatory office posting, she climbs a table and holds her sign aloft in lieu of the more customary big speech. Did that reticence earn Field her Oscar? Or was it the later scene, after she's arrested and bailed out of jail, when she breaks down and cries in Reuben's car? Hers is a layered performance building on her innate spunk with virtues and flaws, loyalties and grudges. Norma Rae is an imperfect heroine and once what one might have called a loose woman. All the makings of an ad hominem argument are there, but the film's point is that they have nothing to do with the struggle for the union; they're not the main thing to judge Norma by. Some people may still think differently, and the sad thing is that there may be more of them than there were in 1979, when the justice of the union cause may well have gone unquestioned in most theaters. You also can't help wondering what became of the O.P. Henley mill, of Norma Rae and all her friends, over the subsequent thirtysome years. The place probably closed, but did Norma get to retire first? Inevitably, Norma Rae is now a period piece, worth watching for its authentic location work as well as for Field's performance, but it's probably even more a period piece than the filmmakers ever intended. Its committed optimism about solidarity and struggle dates it and lends it some unwanted retroactive pathos. It's hard to imagine the film inspiring people to refight the old battles when someone's probably sold the battlefield and built a strip mall there.