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Sally Field had become famous as a teenager, playing the role of Gidget on television, followed by another perky role as The Flying Nun. In 1977, she won an Emmy Award for playing a schizophrenic in the television film Sybil (1976), but for most people in the late 70s, she was still seen as Gidget, the Flying Nun or Burt Reynolds' costar in Smokey and the Bandit (1977). That image was erased forever when she won the Academy Award for Best Actress in the title role of Norma Rae (1979).
Director Martin Ritt first conceived the idea for the film when he read a New York Times article by Henry P. Leifermann, who had written a book, Crystal Lee, a Woman of Inheritance; it was based on Crystal Lee Sutton's struggles in trying to unionize the J.P. Stevens Company textile mill in Roanoke Rapids, North Carolina. Ritt later said, "I've known a lot of women in my life, most of them much more educated and sophisticated, who would not have had the balls that she had." After reading the book, Ritt knew that here was a story just waiting to be told, so he quickly bought the film rights. The problem was trying to convince Hollywood studios to back him and it wasn't easy. "I was trying to make a labor film with teeth, in Hollywood, where it has never been easy to make an affirmative statement about the working class." Paramount and Columbia turned Ritt down and it was beginning to look like no one was interested, when Alan Ladd, Jr. at Twentieth Century-Fox agreed to greenlight the film.
With a budget of only $4.5 million, Martin Ritt had to find a group of people who would work for less than their usual salary. Faye Dunaway, Jane Fonda, Marsha Mason and Jill Clayburgh are all said to have turned down the role. Sally Field had not worked with Martin Ritt before the two met at an anti-nuclear weapons rally and became friends, yet Ritt had a feeling that she would be right for the part, even if the studio didn't. "Sally was at a transition in her career. I didn't pay her very much money and she became a big star. One of the reasons the picture didn't cost that much is that I didn't have to pay big salaries to her, myself, or the writers." The script was completed in only six weeks with Ritt working closely with the husband and wife team of screenwriters Harriet Frank, Jr. and Irving Ravetch, old friends with whom he had worked on Hud (1963) and The Long, Hot Summer (1958)
Although Field and Ritt were friends, she was still intimidated when they began to work together. "His first signal that he sends out is, 'Don't be late or I'll bite your head off.' And I was afraid I was going to make a mistake." Shooting was scheduled to take place in Georgia, but word got around that Ritt wanted to find a textile mill for location filming and the state's textile commission is said to have sent out letters advising mill owners not to let him on their premises. Eventually, the situation became difficult enough to force the production to move to Alabama, where Governor George Wallace was actively trying to encourage Hollywood production in his state. Wallace invited the cast and crew to dinner which Field did not want to attend because of Wallace's racist past, which he later renounced. Ritt told her to stop acting like a child and she went to dinner. Field later said that while meeting Wallace did not change her opinion, she now felt that he was only a pawn. Wallace later visited the set of Norma Rae and posed for a photograph with Field, calling her "a very beautiful young lady and was very gracious to me in allowing me to have her picture made with me."
Despite the move to Alabama, things were no better there with mill owners refusing Ritt permission to film in their factories. Two owners wrote to Ritt to say that they didn't agree with the movie's point of view but they didn't want to be told what to do by any commission, either. One of them eventually dropped out of negotiations, but the other, in Opelika, finally agreed, although he claimed that he would be killed if the other owners found out he'd let Ritt use his mill. Apparently, Ritt's upping the payout from $25,000 to $100,000 helped, and filming finally took place. The mill was a difficult location with the noise of the machines drowning out the dialog so that Ritt could not hear the actors. He later said, "I've already worked very carefully on the script, I never hear what an actor says when he's playing a scene, he or she. I'm watching them."
When Norma Rae was released, Ritt received letters of thanks from several unions, including the Amalgamated Clothing and Textile Workers Union and the United Automobile Workers. Crystal Lee Sutton wasn't as happy with the film, which she felt should have been more of a documentary, but Norma Rae was a smash with the critics. The Seattle Times compared it to The Grapes of Wrath (1940) and New York Times film critic Vincent Canby stated that Norma Rae "provides Sally Field with the plum role of her career, an opportunity to demonstrate once and for all that she is an actress of dramatic intelligence and force, someone who no longer need be referred to in terms of her television credits. [...] Miss Field gives a performance that is as firm and funny as the set of her glass jaw -- and just as full of risk. It's a role loaded with the kind of sentimental temptations that might side-track a lesser performer. Miss Field, though, has found its tough truth and stuck to it. The performance, which gives dimension to the film, may well be the one that those of other actresses are measured against this year."
Canby was prophetic. Field was nominated for an Academy Award, along with David Shire and Norman Gimbel for Best Original Song ("It Goes Like it Goes"), Ravetch and Frank for their screenplay and the film itself was up for Best Picture. Field, Shire and Gimbel won their awards, but surprisingly, Martin Ritt was not even nominated for Best Director, an oversight that Field felt compelled to comment on in her acceptance speech, saying "Martin Ritt is Norma Rae." Ritt and Field won awards at the Cannes Film Festival, but his lack of recognition from the Academy continued to sting. The relationship between Ritt and Field continued after Norma Rae and the two would work together again on Back Roads (1981) and Murphy's Romance (1985). Field said, "The man has had a tremendous influence on me as a professional and as a human. The only other people in my life who had that kind of impact are my mother and family."
Producer: Tamara Asseyev, Alex Rose
Director: Martin Ritt
Screenplay: Harriet Frank, Jr., Irving Ravetch
Cinematography: John A. Alonzo
Art Direction: Tracy Bousman
Music: David Shire
Film Editing: Sidney Levin
Cast: Sally Field (Norma Rae), Beau Bridges (Sonny), Ron Leibman (Reuben), Pat Hingle (Vernon), Barbara Baxley (Leona), Gail Strickland (Bonnie Mae), Morgan Paull (Wayne Billings), Robert Broyles (Sam Bolen), John Calvin (Ellis Harper), Booth Colman (Dr. Watson).
by Lorraine LoBianco
Canby, Vincent. "Film: 'Norma Rae,' Mill-Town Story: Unionism in the South." The New York Times 2 Mar 79.
Donahue, Deidre "Director Martin Ritt Throws Moviegoers a Curve by Pinch-Hitting as an Actor in The Slugger's Wife." People , May 6, 1985.
Jackson, Carlton Picking Up the Tab: The Life and Movies of Martin Ritt
Miller, Gabriel Martin Ritt Interviews