Inspired by the story of textile worker Cheryl Lee Sutton, Ritt's film is one of the great progressive films to somehow escape from Hollywood into the marketplace...it's strongly pro-worker, pro-women, and advocates for cooperation and camaraderie amongst people of different racial, ethnic, religious, social, and geographic backgrounds. Like James Bridges' The China Syndrome, also released in 1979, it is an impassioned cry against injustices perpetrated by a powerful, established foe--in this case, management and big business. Both films have strong female protagonists (Jane Fonda in China Syndrome) who become more radicalized and learn to fight as the films progress. With the Reagan era just around the corner, it's a minor miracle that these uncompromising, undeniably left-leaning, cinematic indictments of the establishment were even greenlit.
I can't say I was ever a big fan of Field's, but then with one role--Norma Rae, in this case--I was completely won over. She's thoroughly convincing as a single mother from the Deep South, with minimal education, an active (and unfairly maligned) sex life, a rebellious streak, toughness, and a willingness and desire to step outside her comfort zone in order to better herself and her loved ones, i.e. trusting and teaming up with a Northern Jew in order to bring a union to the factory.
I never felt like Field was acting here or having to try very hard to affect a working-class brio; it seems to come naturally to her and I felt that this "organic" quality extended to the rest of the film. Ritt and screenwriters Harriet Frank, Jr. and Irving Ravetch do a fine a job of not beating their message over viewers' heads. I think of it as a more of a massage, in comparison to others in the same canon such as Erin Brockovich, which I admittedly haven't seen in years, but which I recall as being much louder and less subtle.
Norma Rae is a smart, well-crafted piece, which doesn't resort to cheap tricks or get overly or falsely sentimental; these are things I can't always put exactly into words, but I know them when I see them and they are anathema to me. As an example of the film's admirable restraint in this regard, composer David Shire is one of the best in his field, but his music is used sparingly here; to the film's credit, its most dramatic and moving moments play in a more documentary-like fashion, with very little non-diegetic sounds such as a dramatic score. In fact, the sound you will probably most remember after watching Norma Rae is that of the extremely loud factory machinery, which the characters are constantly competing with to be heard. It's a nice analogy for the overall narrative, if you like that sort of thing.
The fine supporting cast includes the aforementioned Leibman, who should have gotten some Supporting Actor nominations for his work here. Leibman has many fine moments in the film, none more so than his moving, chivalrous farewell scene with Field, which confounds not only audience expectations, but also Norma Rae's.
Sharp-eyed viewers will note that Field's onscreen time with Beau, was sandwiched by love interest roles with brother Jeff in Bob Rafelson's Stay Hungry and Robert Mulligan's Kiss Me Goodbye. Almost romantic rivals in Norma Rae, Leibman and Bridges earlier played best pals in Douglas Schwartz's 1973 buddy road movie Your Three Minutes Are Up!.
There's no shortage of top '70s character talent filling out the rest of the cast, a number of whom are sadly no longer with us: Pat Hingle, Barbara Baxley, Gail Strickland, Bob Minor, Frank McRae, Morgan Paull, Noble Willingham, Gregory Walcott, James Luisi, John Calvin, and Grace Zabriskie (who would play a factory worker again a few years later in An Officer and a Gentleman), among others. You might not recognize all of them by name, but you will know their faces.
Sutton apparently was not happy with the film at the time of its release, which is unfortunate because I think it's a beautiful tribute to her fighting spirit. In a tragic example of history seeming to repeat itself, years later, she had to fight with her health insurance company in order to get coverage for the brain cancer that would eventually kill her, losing precious time to start her medical treatments.
In addition to composer Shire, notable tech credits belong to editor Sidney Levin (Nashville, Mean Streets, and several other Ritt titles) and d.p. John A. Alonzo (Chinatown, Scarface, Harold and Maude) who shot the film in the surprising (to me, anyway), but ultimately apt 'scope ratio; the extra wide 2.35:1 framing is ideal for the machinery and worker-filled factory floors where so much of the film is staged. The aforementioned Blu-ray does a superb job of recreating the original look of this film for home consumption. There is no unsightly grain reduction or over-brightening. It was an ideal way to get acquainted with this exceptional film.
Field has often been ridiculed because of her "You like me!" speech when accepting the Oscar for Best Actress for Places in the Heart. That said, I think her acceptance speech for Norma Rae, like her performance in the film, is right on...she is genuinely appreciative of everyone who helped her earn that award, and it's quite moving as far as these types of speeches go.