- Golden Globe Awards
Sally Field, 1979 on “Norma Rae” – Out of the Archives
Sally Field won a Golden Globe as Best Actress in a drama in 1980 for Norma Rae, directed by Martin Ritt, after having won Best Actress at the 1979 Cannes Film Festival and before winning an Academy Award for that performance. She would win a second Golden Globe followed by an Oscar in 1985 for Places in the Heart by Robert Benton.
In 1979, the actress talked to the journalists of the Hollywood Foreign Press Association about her role in Norma Rae, inspired by the real-life Crystal Lee Sutton, a textile worker in North Carolina who becomes a union organizer to improve working conditions and she is fired as a result. Sally Field starred with Jane Fonda, Lily Tomlin, Rita Moreno in 80 for Brady (2023).
Sally Field confessed that she cried after the audience reaction to the premiere screening of Norma Rae at the Cannes Film Festival: “Cannes was an enormous experience for me, a high point in my life. When the film was over, the lights came on, big searchlights were on Marty Ritt and myself, we stood up, they began to applaud and cheer in a way that Americans don’t do. They clap and they hoot, but this was the legendary “bravo” that just got louder and louder. It went on for about 10 or 15 minutes and I am not exaggerating, so I started to cry, because when I was a child I used to lay in bed and dream about becoming Miss America or being elected President of the United States, and I would stand in front of a mirror literally pretending I was having a standing ovation. I had my act all rehearsed of how I was going to respond, but when it really happened to me the first time in my life, I started to cry and I was shaking all over, and the harder I cried, the louder they clapped, so it was a very emotional moment.”
The actress clarified that her character was not based on one person, but was a composite, so she never did meet Crystal Lee Sutton: “Norma Rae was a fictional character for all intents and purposes. The writers had taken some actual events from three or four women, put them in a pot, stirred them all up and bibbety bobbity boo out came a film. It wasn’t just one real person, so it would have been totally superfluous for me to have met any of them, because I had to then take that information and turn it into a living being. I watched my environment and all the people around me, I listened to the Southern accent, but I never studied any one person. I felt like I feel about any of the characters that I’ve ever worked on, whether it’s Norma Rae or Sibyl, that, unless I’m doing Eleanor Roosevelt or someone that you all recognize, it has to come from my own life situation, I have to find where it fits into my own psyche, because that’s the way I work.”
Field explained that the movie was shot in Alabama and the set was a real textile mill, so actors and crew experienced the poor working conditions: “We worked in a textile mill, and everything you see is the real thing. They didn’t color anything, they didn’t dirty the machines, and the people are the real mill workers. As a matter of fact, I worked in the mill every day for two weeks; not all day long, I didn’t have an 8-hour shift, but I felt like it. I guarantee, two hours in that weaving room felt like 8 hours anyplace else, because the vibration is like the motion on a ship, the whole room shakes and it makes you seasick. So you have to get used to it, get your sea legs. All the actors and the crew were saying, ‘I don’t know how they do it.’ I found that shocking that some people live their lives that way, day in and day out, and there were some who were at it for 50 years. They go into the mill when they’re very young, 14 or 15, and that’s it, once you leave school and you’re in the mill, you lose your choices in life”.
In her own life, the actress said she was not actively supporting the efforts of America’s Unions AFL (The American Federation of Labor) and CIO (Congress of Industrial Organizations), but she might get involved in the approval of the ERA (Equal Rights Amendment): “ I am not connected to the unions at all, I’m very ignorant about it, I am just watching from a distance, but I am a normal woman who is thankful that those people out there are working so hard and are sticking their necks out, and I am a perfect example of the effect that they are having upon the nation. I am not a fighter politically at all, I never know quite what I feel. If I listen to one person, I say ‘that sounds good,’ then I listen to another person and that sounds good too, so I’m really undecided. As far as the ERA, I wish I could be a part of it, but I am not. It’s in my nature to feel slightly guilty about not being more involved, so, especially about the ERA, maybe I will. And not having the time is not really a good enough excuse, because lots of women, like Carol Burnett, who are very heavily involved in it, also don’t have time. I don’t do that right now, but I have a lot of time in my life to get better at it.”
Here’s some comments by the actress on her director: “Marty and I were an extraordinary pair, we had a relationship like I’ve dreamt of having all my life, we were in there together. His force, his incredible knowledge of acting was there for me to fall on, if ever I needed it, so we didn’t play games with each other. I was laughing and crying and I knew he was there as my support, he had a great energy. Marty creates an environment where you’re totally fearless to be foolish, to be wrong, to be ugly, so it was a wonderful working experience for me, like a gift from God.”