The movie Norma Rae is one of the year’s heartwarming Hollywood success stories. It opened in March to enthusiastic reviews. An account of a brave, if roughhewn, labor organizer in the South, it stars Sally Field in a performance that is already considered an Academy Award candidate. Even more surprising for a relatively somber film, it is doing well at the box office: In the first six weeks it grossed $8 million.
The triumph of Norma Rae means something else to a 38-year-old motel maid in Burlington, N.C. named Crystal Lee Sutton. Crystal Lee is the real Norma Rae, and she is doing considerably less well than the movie or its star. So far she hasn’t a dime to show for the filmed version of her life, or from the magazine article and book from which it was drawn. (Asked to sign a movie release in exchange for a token $1, Crystal Lee misunderstood, signed and enclosed $1 of her own.)
Norma Rae centers on the moment six years ago when Crystal Lee risked unemployment and jail to lead a union organizing campaign at the J.P. Stevens textile mill in Roanoke Rapids, N.C. But the movie also stirs up her stormy sexual past, detailing love affairs and an illegitimate child. The resulting publicity has cost Crystal Lee the seclusion she sought after the union battle and damaged her relationship with daughter Elizabeth, 14, who lives with Crystal Lee’s ex-husband. Elizabeth called her mother in tears after reading a review in the paper to ask: “How can me and Daddy live in this town now? What will everybody say?”
Crystal Lee is giving thought to a lawsuit. But her real objection is less that the film invades her privacy than that it evades her ideology. “I’m not worried about them knowing about the sex and all back then,” as she puts it in her Piedmont drawl. “The thing is, I wanted it to be a movie that was right—about the union, about what we went through. In the movie they make like it’s only me that’s important, and there were so many others.”
Norma Rae’s director, Martin Ritt, is bitter about Crystal Lee’s reaction—and her hopes for a competing film that Barbara Kopple, producer of the award-winning documentary Harlan County, U.S.A., plans to shoot later this year. “She’s obviously no longer the free spirit in my movie,” Ritt has said. “She’s turned into a middle-class bourgeois woman who doesn’t want anyone to know about her life.”
Ritt underestimates his subject. “I’ve told my children you can be sorry for some of the things you’ve done,” Crystal Lee says, “but not ashamed. I’ve never been ashamed.”
She is every bit the impassioned (but not foul-mouthed) mill-town woman that Sally Field plays her to be. The child of a stern mill worker and his wife, Crystal Lee was raised in North Carolina company towns, and her destiny was fixed. She first went to work in the mill during high school (coming home from the 4 p.m.-midnight shift “tired to my bones”), then married a fellow textile worker, had a child by him at age 20—and four months later was a widow. Her husband was killed drag-racing down a snowy street. Crystal Lee filled the void with an affair, a child born out of wedlock, marriage to another mill worker, Larry “Cookie” Jordan, and a second affair. The only constant in her life was the dusty monotony and deafening noise of the J.P. Stevens mill. She remembers her job there vividly: “Eight hours a shift, all the afternoon and half the night I was standing on this little rug, a kind of cushion, just folding one towel after another. Folding and boxing, boxing and folding.”
The drift of her life began to change with the arrival in Roanoke Rapids of union organizer Eli Zivkovich (played in the movie by Ron Leibman) in the spring of 1973. At his request, she copied a provocative management notice from a bulletin board in the plant in defiance of her supervisors. “It was my break time,” she still protests. When police came to forcibly remove her—”just like in the movie,” she says with excitement—she quickly scrawled a sign saying “UNION” and held it aloft for all her co-workers to see. One by one they indicated their support by silently raising their hands in the V-for-victory sign. “I felt just great,” she recalls. “It was a real good moment.”
From then on, her self-image was never the same. For the first time, she says, she had a taste of independence—from the cotton mill and from the men who had dominated her life. She spent several hours in jail and was fired by J. P. Stevens. But the experience gave her the strength to sit down with her husband and three children for a long-avoided confessional. “Somebody someday is going to be cruel enough to tell you these things,” she remembers saying, “so I want to tell you first.” She talked about the transgressions in her life, even to the point of revealing to her second son, Jay, that she had never married his father. As for Cookie, her husband, she says, “I think he knew that night I had finally freed myself—and that he was going to lose me.”
In 1977 she married Lewis Sutton, a mill worker who obviously loves and respects Crystal Lee. “That lady really has brains,” he likes to say, sometimes adding, “and I’ve got the muscles. Anything she wants to do is all right by me.” Her sons, now 18 and 17, live with them in apparent happiness. The situation at the mill is not so satisfying. In the nearly five years since the employees voted the union in, it has still not signed a contract with Stevens, and Crystal Lee sometimes thinks about getting involved in the movement again. “I love the work,” she says. “There are such rewards.” But when she worked at the mill again briefly last year—”just to show that J.P. couldn’t fire me”—her union was notably cool toward her. “I sometimes think they want me to crawl in a hole somewhere and hide,” she says.
The film about her by Kopple could raise her stock in Roanoke Rapids, and it might also impress a more important constituency: her family. “More people will see it than that other thing,” says son Mark bitterly. Mark, who works with Crystal Lee at the motel, takes comfort in what the motel manager told him after hearing about Norma Rae: “You ought to feel 10 feet tall having a mother like that.” She only wishes Elizabeth could see it that way. “I hope someday she’ll be proud too,” Crystal Lee says. “If I just had Elizabeth with me, well, I’d almost be happy for the first time in my life.” The thought seems to amaze her.