norma rae -- 8/7/20

Today's selection -- from History by Hollywood by Robert Toplin. Norma Rae was an award-winning 1979 film that cemented Sally Field's stardom. It was based on the union-organizing efforts of Crystal Lee Sutton. But when Sutton persisted in efforts to assert editorial control, the screenwriters were forced to create a more generic character and proceed without her, and so the movie became Norma Rae instead of Crystal Lee:

"As production planning for the movie [Norma Rae] moved forward, [Tamara] Asseyeu, [Alex] Rose, and [director Martin] Ritt encountered a new obstacle: Crystal Lee began demanding greater influence over the film. She would not sign a paper giving the producers artistic control of the story. As in the case of most Hollywood films dealing with living persons, the producers wanted signed releases from the principal people being depicted in the drama. The documents were to give the filmmakers complete authority to tell the story in any way that they wished. Producers typically seek such guarantees to avoid unexpected interference with their artistic decisions. Editorial interference can greatly complicate efforts to design a cogent story, and it can be quite expensive if forced on the production during the period of work on the set. The releases also help to prevent legal challenges. Suits, although difficult for the plaintiff to win, often prove to be a nuisance to the producers and involve costly fees. Because of these difficulties filmmakers often do not have a choice about whether to operate with the releases, for the studios will not give a production financial support without them (indeed, the studios need the releases to obtain insurance). In the case of Norma Rae the producers got documentation from some key figures, but Crystal Lee insisted on editorial influence over the script before she would sign.

Sally Field in Norma Rae (left) and Crystal Lee Sutton (right)

"Crystal Lee felt emboldened in part because she was being courted by another filmmaker who wanted to tell her story on the screen. Barbara Kopple, creator of the much-praised documentary Harlan County, U.S.A., thought that the example of Crystal Lee's courage in standing up to J. P. Stevens would make an exciting film. She promised Crystal Lee the right to approve the script if she would agree to a relationship in which Kopple would direct a picture about her. Crystal Lee found this proposal appealing and considered working exclusively with Kopple. Asseyeu and Rose had bought the rights to [Henry P.] Leifermann's book, however, and because Crystal Lee had sold her rights to Leifermann, the two Hollywood producers had legal authority to tell her story. Since Asseyeu and Rose held the necessary rights to move forward and had financing, whereas Kopple's project remained in an earlier stage of development, the Hollywood producers could overcome Kopple's competition. Still, Asseyeu, Rose, and Ritt preferred to have Crystal Lee's enthusiastic cooperation, and they made aggressive efforts to obtain it.

"The producers and the director tried to win Crystal Lee's support by examining the script with her and her lawyers and agreeing to make adjustments in a number of places in the story. With regard to a few scenes, however, the parties could not come to an agreement. Crystal Lee was unhappy, for example, with the script's treatment of the main character's promiscuous youth. The draft includes a dramatic scene in which Norma Rae tells her children about her past sexual adventures when she realizes she has become a public figure in the fight for unionization and senses that her past is likely to be scrutinized by her enemies.

"Worried that her children will soon hear nasty rumors about her private life circulated by anti-union people, she informs her children of affairs with three men and identifies the fathers of two of her children. Ritt thought that this scene would be critically important for understanding Norma Rae's character. The film could not effectively excite audience interest, he argued, if it did not show its female subject maturing beyond her undirected, flirtatious beginnings. Furthermore, the story was public information, having appeared both in Henry Leifermann's New York Times Magazine article and in his book. Ritt thought that he could not budge on such an important element for character development, and Crystal Lee remained displeased about the plan to incorporate the material. Other points of disagreement emerged, too. Crystal Lee took issue with references in the script to Norma Rae's indulgence with alcohol, and she criticized the writers for focusing on her personal life, maintaining that the movie needed to give broader attention to the labor union movement and the many other people who contributed to its struggle.

"Negotiations continued up to the period when the producers were planning to begin work on the set. Ritt appealed to idealism in the final stages, maintaining that Crystal Lee ought to allow the screenwriters greater freedom of expression, for ultimately their efforts were likely to help her cause. Norma Rae would probably be the only pro-union picture ever made by a major studio, he said, and therefore it deserved her cooperation. Ritt also traveled to North Carolina with a $25,000 check in hand as a financial inducement. Crystal Lee continued to hold out for editorial control, however, and soon discovered that the movie project was proceeding without her. The screenwriters made some last adjustments in the script, giving the story a generic quality in various places rather than the appearance of a specific story about Crystal Lee. Because of legal difficulties, Ritt later promoted the movie as 'a fictionalized composite of several such women who became militantly involved in trying to unionize southern textile mills.' Norma Rae would have been called Crystal Lee; the mill worker's resistance forced the adoption of a fictional name. By holding out beyond a point of a workable compromise, Crystal Lee lost her best opportunity to gain national fame from her personal story."



Robert Toplin


History by Hollywood


University of Illinois Press




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