Hollywood Activists, Or How Norma Rae Got Norma Raed

The cruel exploitation of the impoverished masses has been a staple of Hollywood storytelling since the earliest days of movie making. In fact, thanks to big-screen classics from The Grapes of Wrath to Slumdog Millionaire you might say that grinding poverty has been a real gold mine for Tinseltown. Given Hollywood’s progressive politics you might also think that a good chunk of the vast box office earnings inspired by the world’s poor might by now have filtered down to the same unwashed throngs who are, in a sense, responsible for it. And in most cases you would be wrong.

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Crystal Lee Sutton, 68, died a couple of weeks ago of brain cancer. You might know her better by her Hollywood name: Norma Rae. Crystal’s life story was the inspiration for the 1979 Sally Field blockbuster that grossed $22 million (in 1979 dollars), four Oscar nominations, and two Oscars including Best Actress for the aforementioned Ms. Field. Norma Rae’s character is #15 on the American Film Institute’s list of all-time greatest screen heroes; Norma Rae is rated 16th of their “100 Most Inspiring Movies of All Time.” Given all this you probably think that Crystal Lee Sutton died in relative comfort, content with her life’s work and unencumbered by material concerns such as medical bills. Well, guess again.

Crystal Lee Sutton actually did many of the things in real life that Sally Field did in Norma Rae, including writing “Union” on a piece of cardboard and holding it up for everyone to see, sparking the wildcat strike that launched her cause. But when the producers of Norma Rae refused to give her script approval Sutton withdrew her name from the picture, thereby foregoing any participation in the profits. While Sally Field and the producers of Norma Rae were attending the Oscars, Crystal Lee Sutton went on to a series of other low-paying jobs, including work at a chicken processing plant (afterward saying she’d “rather shovel shit” than work there again) and then put herself through school to become a nurse’s aid. At some point Crystal received a small settlement from the movie she inspired, but it wasn’t enough to provide her with even minimal financial security.

At the time of her death Crystal had just won a dispute over coverage with--you guessed it—her medical insurance company, and her husband was working two low-paying jobs to support Crystal during her last days. Upon hearing of Crystal’s death, Sally Field described her as "a remarkable woman whose brave struggles have left a lasting impact on this country and, without doubt, on me personally. Portraying Crystal Lee in 'Norma Rae,' however loosely based, not only elevated me as an actress, but as a human being." To which she might have, but didn’t add, “It didn’t elevate me enough to write Crystal a generous check from the many millions I have earned as an actress, or to organize a Hollywood fundraiser on her behalf, or to assume even partial responsibility for her medical bills, which would have been well within my means, but, you know… I felt like I was pretty darn elevated, just the same.” To paraphrase somebody you know, Ms. Field, we resent you! We really, really resent you for this! Oh, there’s that darn piano music telling me to wrap up… oh, thank you, everybody!

It would be unfair--exploitative, even-- to blame Sally Field for the fact that Crystal Lee Sutton died broke and forgotten. Lots of other people in Hollywood were in a position to ease Crystal’s financial burdens and couldn’t be bothered to do so. What’s appalling is how many leading Hollywood figures enrich themselves playing, writing about, or directing movies about the poor, the down-trodden, and so on, and then forget all about the real-life subjects of their scenery-chewing once they’ve moved on to their next project. Worse, these smug actorcrats berate us little people for not paying enough taxes, not donating enough to charity, and, lately, for resisting efforts to "reform" the health care we’ve earned by extending it to those who haven’t.

And it’s not just actors who won’t walk the activism walk. Michael Moore has built a career out of parlaying social activism into a series of lucrative “documentaries,” if an investigative film whose findings are written before shooting starts is your idea of a documentary. Moore has been called… OK, by me… the only filmmaker in Hollywood who shoots three different ending to his documentaries and then uses the one that tests the best. For all of his blathering about “the little guy” and workers’ rights, Moore is notorious for not paying his crews union wages, not giving his writers the on-screen credits they deserve, and generally being a miserable person to work for. Moore’s four most popular films alone have grossed over $300 million; if his earnings for TV, publishing and speeches are included his tales of exploited G.M. workers, exploited teens, exploited Iraqis, exploited sick people, and exploited victims of the banking crisis have generated close to half a billion dollars. Some might say that capitalism, described by Moore in his latest offering (which I refuse to plug here) as evil, has been pretty good to him. But if Michael Moore is re-distributing the millions he’s pocketed to the victims he and his film crews have, uh… well, exploited in order to make those millions, it’s the best-kept secret in Hollywood.

But as I’m sure you all know they don’t call it show “business” for nothing, and I’ve got my own career to think about. So in the interest of full disclosure I hereby acknowledge that I’ve recently taken my place at the Hollywood writer/actor-vist feeding trough. I’ve just started a script about a union organizer whose bravery in the face of corporate intimidation sparked a movement that improved the lives of millions, after which her life story was stolen from her and turned into a highly acclaimed movie that made millions for everyone involved except its subject. The working title for my new project is Crystal Lee and I’ve gotta tell you, I’m pretty excited about it.

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