Based on the life of Crystal Lee Sutton, the film tells the story of Norma Rae Webster (Field), a worker at the O.P. Henley Textile Mill somewhere in the Deep South, who becomes involved in labor union activities at the mill after Reuben Warshovsky (Leibman) of the Textile Workers Union of America arrives to organize the workers.
This was a memorable Playing Against Type role for Sally Field, who had previously won an Emmy for the TV-movie Sybil but was still mostly known for her work in comedies like Gidget and The Flying Nun; her performance earned her an Academy Award for Best Actress. The film was nominated for four Oscars in all (also winning for Best Original Song) and was inducted into the National Film Registry in 2011.
This film provides examples of:
- Award-Bait Song: "It Goes As It Goes" won the Oscar for best song, beating a far better remembered song, "The Rainbow Connection".
- Character Title: Norma Rae
- Creator Cameo: Martin Ritt plays a factory worker.
- Deep South: The setting. A reverends reject Norma Rae's proposal to use church for gathering because a male black worker is also going to come there. Lampshaded by Reuben after Norma gets hit by her lover:Reuben: I thought everybody down South was Ashley Wilkes.
- Establishing Character Moment: Norma yanks her mother, also a textile worker, out of the mill after discovering her mother has been deafened by the noise. She then accuses the rather blase doctor who treats her mom of not caring about the workers.
- Gossipy Hens: The factory worker in the opening scene pumping Norma about the man she spent the weekend with.
- Grievous Bottley Harm: In the backstory, as Norma Rae talks about how her husband was killed in a bar fight with broken bottles.
- Hollywood Heart Attack: Norma Rae's father complains of a numb arm. The floor manager refuses to let him take a break, because his scheduled break isn't for another 15 minutes. Her father then falls over and dies.
- It's Been Done: Try to think of unions in film without bringing this one up.
- I Was Quite a Looker: "I was good at 18, but things have kind of slipped and slid."
- No-Tell Motel: The dismal little motel where Norma Rae meets her married boyfriend for trysts.
- One Phone Call: Norma Rae is told to call her husband, but she insists on calling her union organizer.
- Overprotective Dad; Norma Rae's father hassles her about her Really Gets Around ways.
- Politically Incorrect Villain: One of the supervisors at the mill calls Reuben a kike. The minister at Norma Rae's church refuses to let her use it for a union meeting because that would require letting black people attend.
- Really Gets Around: Norma Rae has two kids by two different men, meets a married man in a hotel for sex, and apparently has been around town. This is referenced when some bigwigs with the TWUA come to town to express skepticism about her, and Reuben says he doesn't care about her "round heels" as long as she's working for the union.
- Skinnydipping: Reuben stumbles and falls while visiting a man on a farm, which means he has to clean off his shirt, which leads to a skinnydipping session with Norma Rae at the local watering hole.
- Unresolved Sexual Tension: There's clearly something going on with Reuben and Norma Rae, most obviously in the scene where they go skinnydipping together. But she stays faithful to her husband and Reuben eventually leaves town.
- Would Hit a Girl: The married man Norma is having an affair with punches her in the face after she tells him she's ending it.