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Sally Field wasn’t always the aged matriarch tending to spider-saturated orphan Peter Parker and various television stars. She was Hollywood’s spirited everywoman. Equally relatable and inspiring, Field was the proxy for all manner of experience, from the absurdity of a flying nun to the dramatic woe of making ends meet as a widow during the Great Depression. As Norma Rae, she might have sworn that she “was never a very good Girl Scout,” but in Hollywood, Sally Field was.
She embodied the realistic power and possibility of women, not as some idyllic and untouchable hero, but as a flawed and stubborn human being who found the middle ground. Field would imbue her most straightforward feminine, motherly roles with a sense of determined purpose and her professional forays with human vulnerability. Her characters were women you could relate to and often like. She’d nestle into your arms as an inspirational imaginary friend.
Field began her life on television, idiosyncratic starring turns mixed in with heaps of guest appearances. She was Gidget, the flying nun, the new bride with ESP, until she ended her typecast, good-girl charm with the 1976 television movie Sybil. The film wiped away her cheery demeanor to show the talent behind her cherubic face and charm. Field slid into the role so easily that she won an Emmy, and quickly fell into Hollywood. The next year she costarred in one of the biggest hits of 1977, Smokey and the Bandit. Just two years later, she earned an Oscar for her work in Norma Rae.
For 16 years, she tackled all manner of women – not just a wide variety of mothers (“I wanna be a wife; I wanna be a mom; I wanna be a comedienne!”), but women coming into their own – professionals, soap opera stars, and women finding a way to succeed in the face of terrible odds. They were women fighting for control of their lives and emotionally thriving when they did. Over this time, she worked with a who’s who of actors, the likes of Harrison Ford, Robert Downey Jr., Tommy Lee Jones, Ed Harris, John Malkovich, and of course, Tom Hanks. Yet while they enjoyed continued and increasing success, her star power struggled against Hollywood’s allergy to female age.
The fun and blockbusters that had originally set her apart from fellow dramatic actresses like Meryl Streep, and originally earned her a more diverse and less romantic audience, now failed to help her. As soon as she was cast as Mrs. Gump, the mother of a man she previously had a fling with in Punchline, Field’s Hollywood success disappeared. Though she’d survived the Oscar curse, and won both times she was nominated, Gump was the last successful and well-regarded starring role she had for years. Bringing Forrest into the world jinxed her. Field faded back into successful television work until 2012 with The Amazing Spider-Man and, this week, Lincoln.
With her first meaty, mainstream role since Gump, Field plays Mary Todd Lincoln. Some insiders claim she’s on the road to her third Oscar nomination, and Slate has called her performance “truly transcendent.” It was a role she had to fight for, almost losing it when Liam Neeson backed out and Daniel Day-Lewis, 10 years her junior, stepped in. Field has said: “I knew Mary was a part for me. I just felt it in my gut for many, many years.” When Spielberg wanted to look elsewhere, she told him: “I won’t let you walk away from me. I won’t let you do it.… I’ll go toe-to-toe with him and he won’t blow me down.” She fought, she tested, and she won.
Some seem to think Sally Field’s return to the big screen should focus on the weight she put on to play Mrs. Lincoln, and how she doesn’t like to watch herself in 3D. It’s typical bs, of course, which obscures the real story: How easily she’s slid back into a critically applauded film work – she’s “very good,” she “scores,” and in the words of Owen Gleiberman: “Field's performance is shattering — in a few furious scenes, she redefines this first lady as a woman whose supposed madness reflected a humane fervor as sterling as her husband's.”
The buzz is a reminder that though Hollywood had moved on from our beloved Norma Rae, the power was still there, waiting to be tapped. It’s bittersweet to wonder what other spunky, inspirational women Field would’ve played on the big screen if Hollywood wasn’t so scared of women aging. Might she have had strange people vacationing in her head like Malkovich? Would she have portrayed a tortured artist like Harris? We’ll never know, but we always have her early work, which is just begging to be revisited.
Without further ado, I give you five essential films to reacquaint yourself with the diverse talent of Sally Field. Think of it as a belated birthday nod to the actress. She turned 66 on Tuesday, and she’s still killin’ it.
Sally Field didn’t slowly build her dramatic resume. Instead, she leapt from bubbly charisma to a project that required her to be a number of women in one, sliding from personality to personality, which Field did with ease. At the time, it was a revelation how the actress could morph from the solitary meekness of one moment into the charmingly quick-witted in another, only to be terrorized by a random image and melt into a worried child. Though it’s a decades-old television movie, it holds up on the power of Field’s impressive performance.
Smokey and the Bandit
One of the perks of Field’s filmography is her genre diversity. She never let her dramatic stints stop her from having fun. As Carrie, the girl who flees her fiancé on their wedding day, she’s the spunky paramour. But this isn’t an untouchable, slow-panning, bare-legged Daisy Duke-esque character. Carrie and the Bandit might talk about her looks, but he’s equally enamored with her personality (it helps that the pair were a couple in real life). She’s a daring risk taker attracted to the high-speed world, not a damsel fluttering her eyelashes and exacerbating her distress. She embraces some romantic mainstays in a gritty, testosterone-laced action film, but she challenges just as many.
Absence of Malice
On one level, Absence of Malice is a hard film to get through – one with some head-scratching incompetence and bad decision-making juxtaposed against some rather shrewd human manipulation. Field manages to take a wildly flawed character and make her a worthy journey, in spite of her flaws. As Roger Ebert wrote upon the film’s debut, Field offers “a quietly original performance that is not Norma Rae with a pencil behind her ear, but is an earnest, nervous, likable young woman who makes mistakes when she listens too closely to her heart, her ambition, or her editor (which of us cannot admit the same?).”
Places in the Heart
Before she went back in time to play Mary Todd, Field went back to the Great Depression to portray a new widow who struggles to keep her farm in trying times. Edna Spalding is a wonderfully progressive character out of practicality, soon setting herself apart from her KKK town by getting help from a nomadic black man. It’s the story of a woman learning to rely on her own wits. Edna doesn’t set out for a husband, she sets out to learn about life, from the minutia of banking to disciplining her children and running a cotton plantation. Her determination is invigorating, especially as she ignores her bloody hands to work and provide for her family, and it steps into another gear as she becomes a businesswoman. Field slowly transforms from a weak housewife into a woman with a fiery passion, enthusiasm bubbling out of her as she imagines a new future for herself.
The most essential film for any Sally Field marathon is, of course, Norma Rae. It’s beautiful watching her evolve over the course of the film – how she finds her voice and struggles with both its determined power and how it impacts those around her. It’s the one-two punch of a great performance and a real-life woman to give the proceedings even more emotional resonance. And it was the film that proved her Hollywood worth, as Vincent Canby wrote: “the plum role of her career, an opportunity to demonstrate once and for all that she is an actress of dramatic intelligence and force, someone who no longer need be referred to in terms of her television credits. [...] Miss Field gives a performance that is as firm and funny as the set of her glass jaw -- and just as full of risk."
Honorable Mention: Soapdish, with all of its idiosyncratically insane comedy.