PHILADELPHIA — Sally Field has an Alp of acting hardware and years of experience in the business, yet Steven Spielberg was about to prevent her Mary Todd Lincoln from happening.
Field was originally cast in the role. When Liam Neeson dropped out of “Lincoln” and was replaced by Daniel Day-Lewis, Field recalls Spielberg telling her another actor would be cast as Mary. She knew that it was not merely her age — she is a decade older than Day-Lewis; Mary was almost a decade younger than the president. But there was also “the baggage I come with.”
The baggage: Gidget, that nun, B-movie trucker flotsam, Burt Reynolds, the Oscar speech (No. 2).
But when she wants something, Field is 98 pounds of pure will. The actor, among this year’s recipients of the Kennedy Center Honors, informed the most bankable director of all time — mind you, a man she had never worked with — “Steven, I’m telling you right now, this is mine and if you disagree, then, with all due respect, you’re wrong.”
Field, Forrest Gump’s mother, Mrs. Doubtfire’s boss, the least steely of the “Steel Magnolias,” the core of “Places in the Heart,” the mother of “Brothers and Sisters,” the inimitable Norma Rae and 16 deviations of Sybil, the winner of two Oscars, three Emmys and two Golden Globes, volunteered to do a screen test — two actually, though actors of her caliber are long past such exercises. And, c’mon, Field has always looked preposterously young for her age.
“I knew Mary was mine because of her physicality, because of her emotionality, because of her Americanness,” Field says, sitting in her gray-on-gray lodging while shooting the AMC limited series “Dispatches From Elsewhere” in Philadelphia. “I could not think of another actor who had all of those qualities and at the age she was then. By the time we meet Mary, she’s worn.”
Field was right to battle for the role. Her Mary is an exquisitely shaded portrait of grief, entitlement and mettle. And the actor holds her own with Day-Lewis, the Olivier of our time, and earned her an Oscar nomination.
It says everything about Field, 73, that she shares this story often, in her intimate 2018 memoir, “In Pieces” (fittingly, she appears almost naked on the cover), in a lengthy interview and in a packed auditorium at the Free Library of Philadelphia. It is a narrative of her tenacity and pluck (such a Fieldian term), how she still battles for respect and roles despite incontrovertible evidence of her abilities, and that the work — and the relentless quest for that work — remains paramount.
“The roles I cared about deeply I had to fight for,” she told the library audience in November. “They never really came to me.”
Director Martin Ritt envisioned Field as textile worker and future GIF Norma Rae. Yet the part was first offered to four or five other actresses.
“No one else wants you,” the late director told her, meaning the suits at Twentieth Century Fox. Field responded: “That’s always been the case.” The role netted her the first Oscar.
Field has been underestimated her entire career: by producers, directors, audiences. She remains A-list adjacent. Possibly, it is due to the Southern Californian’s approachable, all-American good looks — you don’t cast Field as a Mitteleuropa countess — and her Polly Pocket size. “Everyone is taller than Sally,” notes Julia Roberts, who towers over her “Magnolias” mother. For years, industry expectations of Field were stuck on “adorable.”
Perhaps it’s the bouncy, rounded cadence of her voice and her public demeanor, direct and approachable, shorn of mystery. Or her sprightly name, more suitable to a field hockey roster. For her interview, she wears glasses, jeans, an oversize plaid shirt, sneakers and seemingly no makeup, all comfort and no affect, another Thursday. She appears as a better-looking, intensely accomplished version of someone we already know.
But Hollywood’s resistance to her protean talents proved a gift, igniting her ambition, making her more tenacious, industrious and brash. A half-century in the industry, Field is still a scrapper. She coasts on nothing.
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Field was Tiger Beat famous, an icon on two sitcom bagatelles, before she could act.
She was too cute, too chipper and emanated too much telegenic gee-whiz gumption to be taken seriously, first as surfette Gidget (which lasted all of one season but flourished in reruns and as pop culture dross) and then as “The Flying Nun,” drowning in a starched white cornette with the wingspan of a Cessna.
She had discovered acting in junior high. An indifferent student, she became queen of the drama department. Now, TV threatened to trap her.
“When people think you are so cute, then you want to be a woman. You want to be taken seriously,” says her friend Elizabeth Lesser, co-founder of Omega Institute, the holistic personal-growth retreat. “It’s something you feel you need to overcome, for people to know your inner self and not as a tiny, cute thing, there’s a need to be validated for your personhood.”
Field loved “Gidget,” and loathed the nun (“meaningless twaddle”). Airborne, she was sunk. Even her first pregnancy could not rid her of the habit. This was the ‘60s, long before prestige TV, when sitcoms were a cathode ray-tube prison, “the small screen” a slap. Movies celebrated Actors, not Gidgets.
“They were so not interested in me because they were so sure they knew everything that I was. Part of me had to chose optimism over defeat,” Field says. She has a tendency to look off in the distance as she speaks, as though she’s too determined to give the best answer to be distracted. “I had to say to myself that when I was good enough something would happen, that it would simply change.”
The nun drove Field to the Actors Studio. At her first reading for Lee Strasberg, the famously withholding coach, he said “You were quite brilliant,” something he told precisely no one.
With time, and the 1976 television breakthrough of the acting decathlon “Sybil,” Field was cast as a series of determined, unsung Southern women, drawing on the indomitable women in her family.
“She is the great American actor. She knows how to play a proletariat role from the inside, not from the out,” says “Places in the Heart” director Robert Benton. “She doesn’t act. She inhabits.”
Watching “Norma Rae,” released five years before his film, Benton says, “I never felt for a moment that what I saw was any kind of acting. The hardest thing in the world is to be utterly natural. A lot of actors are really great, but they’re technical actors. She’s not like anyone else I know.”
Matthew Rhys, who played her son on “Brothers & Sisters,” recalls clowning around with another actor on set and Field admonishing, “If you don’t concentrate, I’m going to crack both your heads together. You have to take this seriously. You have to do the best you can.” Rhys, who trained at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Arts, says, “She stays very close to whatever is happening, holding her focus.” In her performances, “you don’t see the cogs turning. You assume that level of genius and perfection. It’s commonplace, on a less showy and performative level.”
In the deep-fried froth of “Magnolias,” Field appears to be in an entirely different movie. While the other women parlay in Grade-A sass, she’s charged with the damn-the-torpedoes graveyard scene, she says, “the heart of the movie where you have to disembowel yourself.” Roberts recalls “seeing the film for the first time and beginning to cry and cry during that scene. Sally was heartbreaking, but it felt so odd to cry at my own funeral!”
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Field’s actress mother was a beauty, a bit player. Field’s towering stuntman stepfather, Jock Mahoney, played Tarzan after the franchise lost steam and, she says, sexually abused her. The memoir is a love letter and an act of forgiveness to her mother, who died in 2011. “I didn’t really write it for anyone but myself,” she says.
Field’s two marriages, the first to her high school sweetheart, produced three sons, but were largely unhappy. The second union merits barely two pages; that husband’s last name goes unmentioned.
Reynolds, her sole supermarket-checkout paramour, she writes, was jealous and controlling, determined to shrink her back to Gidget. When she was nominated for an Emmy, he scoffed, “Go if you want, but be prepared to lose again.”
She was, then watched as her name was announced for “Sybil” from the stiff sofa in a rental condo, the sound turned down so as not to disturb Reynolds.
Field has been on her own much of her life. Raising the children fell mostly to her. The two-time Oscar winner did ads for a bone-health drug. She became more political — adamantly liberal — and outspoken. “We all have to be political right now. I think we have to be informed. We have to care about this country or we’re going to lose it — if we haven’t already.”
As with other honorees during the Trump era, she considered boycotting the event, though the president has yet to attend. “But then would we be protesting against the right thing?” she asks. “This means a great deal to me that my work” — which has spanned 55 years — “through thick and thin, and up and down, and sideways has had some sort of cultural relevance.”
In recent years, Field ventured onto the stage. The reviews, in Edward Albee’s “The Goat, or Who Is Sylvia?” on Broadway, in Tennessee Williams’s “The Glass Menagerie” at the Kennedy Center and later on Broadway, and Arthur Miller’s “All My Sons” earlier this year in the West End, were rapturous — critics, yet again, were astonished at Field’s ability.
Her most scrutinized performance, all one minute and 10 seconds, remains her 1985 Oscar acceptance — more blurt than speech — for “Places.” She spontaneously combusted with joy. “I haven’t had an orthodox career and I wanted more than anything to have your respect,” she said, her voice quivering, “and I can’t deny the fact that you like me, right now! You like me!”
She was mercilessly mocked and misquoted, remembered more for the Vesuvius of unscripted delight and gratitude than the understated “Places” performance that secured her the honor. She had broken form of how a winner should behave.
Critics “will define it as the quintessential bit of insecurity, and it so wasn’t insecurity,” she says. “It was about acceptance. It was about the work.” What she was trying to say — “I wish I had been more articulate” — was “Right now, in this moment in time, I have succeeded in what I have been trying to do. That you think I was excellent.”
Acting was the exit and passport from all the imposed propriety of her childhood, to stay cute, be pretty, behave. Her Southern grandmother instructed: “Don’t be ugly. When you get angry, you get ugly.”
In the theater, “I could be as ugly as I wanted to be. I could be mad,” she says. “And you didn’t have people shun you or dislike you, you got applauded for it.”
Well, Field thought, “I could be me.” After initial years of compromise, she was free to tear it up, exceeding so many expectations, though not her own.