By Alan Hurst

Sally Field was one of the Kennedy Centre honorees last month, a deserved accolade for one of the best actresses of the last 50 years. I’m old enough to remember Sally Field from the initial runs of Gidget (1965-66), The Flying Nun (1967-70) and the short-lived The Girl with Something Extra (1973-74). I was just a kid, but I remember her as being cute, perky and funny and that she played everything with a sincerity that made even the hokiest of scripts palatable. In Gidget she was a normal, precocious teenager, but in the other two she had to convince us she was a nun who could fly, and then a newlywed with superior powers of ESP. Both were supremely silly, but Field gave them her all.

Her first 10 years in the business were a tough slog for her in terms of generating real credibility as an actress, but in 1976 she turned it around over night (actually over two nights) with her performance in Sybil, two part TV adaptation of the best selling novel based on a real life case of a woman with dissociative identity disorder.

Since then Field has been making movies, with occasional forays to stage and back to television, and she has secured her position as one of the finest actresses around. She has two Oscars, three Emmys, two Golden Globes, two New York Film Critics Awards, a SAG award, and a Tony nomination. No one saw that happening to the actress who made us believe her nun’s wimple allowed her to fly all over Puerto Rico.

These are Sally Field’s best performances:

10. Absence of Malice (1981)

Ignoring Beyond the Poseidon Adventure (1979) and Smokey and the Bandit II (1980), this was Field’s first role of substance after her cinematic breakthrough in Norma Rae (1979). Sydney Pollack directs efficiently, and Paul Newman expertly plays the son of a deceased mobster. There’s no evidence that he’s involved with the mob, but the FBI put pressure on him through a local reporter (Field) to see if they can get him to reveal what he knows about a murder they’re assuming is a mob hit. Although this is primarily Newman’s movie with his nicely modulated, cool performance, Field is also excellent as the naïve journalist whose desire for the story leads her to being used by the FBI and ultimately results in tragedy. Field’s character is not likeable, nor particularly bright, and her approach to journalism is questionable. It’s to Field’s credit that she doesn’t really try to soften her. Instead, she’s quite forthright in showing the character’s misguided, destructive drive.

9. Murphy’s Romance (1985)

Aside from her career boosting appearances in some films with Burt Reynolds where she got to be the pretty – and definitely secondary – sidekick (Smokey and the Bandit, The End, Hooper) Field didn’t get a lot of chances at truly successful romantic comedy. There were some misfires with Back Roads (1981), Kiss Me Goodbye (1982), and Surrender (1987), but none of those were vehicles that gave Field the opportunity to show what she could do with a strong script where she was allowed to be pretty and enjoy some relaxed chemistry with an ideal co-star. She got that with Murphy’s Romance, an easy going, witty and entertaining comedy directed by Martin Ritt (he also directed her in Norma Rae and Back Roads) and co-starring a very relaxed James Garner. Field played a young divorced mother who moves to rural Arizona where she plans to train and board horses. She becomes friendly with the local pharmacist (Garner) who helps her get her business of the ground and their platonic friendship eventually blossoms into romance. Despite the age gap – which is part of the story – Field and Garner make a charming couple. Their performances feel effortless. At the time of the film’s release Garner received the bulk of the acclaim (and an Oscar nomination), but it’s Field who carries the movie.

8. Hello, My Name is Doris (2015)

Field’s last film lead to date was in this quirky, fun comedy from writer/director Michael Showalter. It’s about slightly eccentric misfit (Field) whose outlandish wardrobe and eye glass choices bely the awkward charmer that Doris is. Because she’s never moved out of her now deceased mother’s house, she’s never really had a life of her own and she’s been almost invisible to the opposite sex. But a new, young, and very handsome co-worker shows her some attention and she blossoms. We don’t usually get to see the reverse in a May-December romance. Whether it’s Cary Grant and Audrey Hepburn, Robert Redford and Debra Winger, or Richard Gere and Julia Roberts, we don’t bat an eye. But put a woman in the older role and you’ve got the opportunity to look a love a little differently. Field is very funny and moving as Doris. It’s a treat to see the actress playing someone so different from anything she’s done in the past and clearly enjoying herself. Tyne Daly is also terrific as Doris’ boldly aggressive friend.

7. Brothers and Sisters (2006-11)

After a successful and Emmy winning three-episode stint on ER (1994-2009), Field heeded the call of network television and returned to a regular series in 2006. Brothers and Sisters was a well executed if soapy drama about a California family rocked by the death of the patriarch (Tom Skerrit). There is a family run food business and, with dad’s death, the discovery of a mistress and another daughter, in addition to the five kids Field had with her husband. Plots revolved around the relationships of the siblings and extended family, their spouses, their loves and their fights. Field was the anchor for the family and the show. Her character – Nora Walker – was intrusive but well-meaning, and never one to shy away from an opinion or advice. Field gave Nora a strength the was necessary for the family to function, but also to give the show it’s grounded core. Brothers and Sisters had a pretty strong cast, but I tuned in weekly to watch Field at work. She made Nora believable, funny and her frequent flashes of anger were brilliant. She won her third Emmy at the end of the show’s first season.

6. Steel Magnolias (1989)

This campy, melodramatic comedy almost defies criticism. It’s not a great movie, but it is colorful, funny and moving and it was a major hit in 1989 thanks to women and gay men. Adapted from a successful play, it veers from friendship, to family, to marriage, to childbirth, to illness with the action centred in and around a beauty salon populated by a sextet of interesting characters inhabited by a group of even more interesting actresses. This one is all about the cast. Julia Roberts and Daryl Hannah have the least interesting roles, with Roberts (despite her Oscar nomination for Best Supporting Actress) having to deliver some of the films clunkiest dialogue. But they don’t hinder the phenomenal ensemble of Sally Field, Shirley MacLaine, Olympia Dukakis and Dolly Parton. These four actresses are pure gold. They know the southern tinged story isn’t Tennessee Williams, but they certainly work to ensure that every line of dialogue is as believable as it can be. Field has the biggest role and, if the other three deliver the comic goods, she gives the film it’s heart and pathos. Field’s M’Lynn is a tightly wound, hyper protective mother who needs to control everything in her sphere. Of course, she isn’t able to and it’s that overwhelming sense of loss and frustration that erupts in the film’s best scene, set after the funeral service of her daughter. M’Lynn has been building to the eruption throughout the film, but we still aren’t ready for the ferocity and pain that Field is able to conjure. It’s an incredibly powerful moment, made all the better with director Herbert Ross’ quick transition to some wildly funny comedy courtesy of MacLaine and Dukakis.

5. The Glass Menagerie (2017)

Field arrived on the Broadway stage late in her career when she replaced Mercedes Ruehl in Edward Albee’s absurdist The Goat, or Who is Sylvia?  in 2002. She got terrific reviews, but then didn’t return until 2017 in a pared down production of Tennessee William’s classic The Glass Menagerie. The production itself received mixed reviews – Joe Mantello seemed a little too old as Tom, the pared down set with the exposed backstage brick wall was too harsh for the dreamlike tone of the play – but Field created an Amanda for the ages. There is something about playing a southern character that really resonates with Field, be it in Norma Rae, Steel Magnolias or Places in the Heart or this production. Field’s talent and a certain southern sensibility are completely in synch. Amanda Wingfield is a marathon dream role. She flutters between reality and illusion with an annoying optimism that good things will happen for her handicapped daughter, her alcoholic son, and so she can endure her own lot in life. The fluctuations came easily to Field, but she also gave Amanda a steely, focused determination when she needed to. It was an incredibly physical performance, and one that earned her a Tony nomination. She has since ventured to London’s West End in an acclaimed production of Arthur Miller’s All My Sons which was filmed for cinemas and is playing now. 

4. Places in the Heart (1984)

Despite the brutality of the film’s set up, the hardships the characters endure, and a brutal scene involving the Ku Klux Klan towards the ened, Places in the Heart is a quiet, sometimes amusing, sometimes somber film. One of three films released in 1984 that dealt with challenges of farm life (the others were Country with Jessica Lange and The River with Sissy Spacek), this is the best. The film opens during the Great Depression with the death of the local sheriff – Field’s husband – after being accidentally shot by a young black boy who is then killed. The sheriff’s death leaves Field’s character a widow, with two young children, a mortgaged farm, and a cotton crop that she cannot plant or bring in herself. With the help of a blind lodger (John Malkovich), a drifter (Danny Glover) and her family (Ed Harris, Lindsay Crouse), Field works to bring in the crop and make the payments on her loan. There is a quiet, tremulous strength to Field’s work here that is a nice counterpart to her more volatile work in Sybil and Norma Rae. There is grit in her performance, but it’s softer and she also helps bring some amusing moments to the lyrical tale of growth of emancipation. Robert Benton (Kramer vs. Kramer) wrote and directed Place in the Heart and it’s probably his best film.

3. Lincoln (2012)

Steven Spielberg had been dangling the promise Mary Todd Lincoln in front of Sally Field for a while. So long, in fact, that Field was worried she was going to be too old to play her by the time they got around to filming. She needn’t have worried. She was well into her sixties at the time, but Field looked just right as the wife of Abraham Lincoln. Although Spielberg’s definitive look at the presidency of Lincoln is all about Daniel Day Lewis’ transformative performance, the relationship between Lincoln and the First Lady is key to understanding the man, his politics and his ability to placate. Mary Todd Lincoln is one of history’s most fascinating first ladies because of her strong hold on her husband and her fragile grip on her own sanity. Field plays her with just the right amount of controlled manipulation and hysteria. The film begins with Mary grieving the loss of one of her sons, amplifying her instability. Field makes Mary both heartbreaking and frustrating, she’s her on worst enemy. Field deservedly won the New York Film Critic’s Award for Best Supporting Actress and should have been that year’s Oscar winner as well. There must be something about the role of Mary Todd Lincoln that brings out the best in actresses – Ruth Gordon in Abe Lincoln in Illinois (1940), Julie Harris in The Last of Mrs. Lincoln (1976), and Mary Tyler Moore in Gore Vidal’s Lincoln (1988) all delivered varied but equally credible performances as the troubled First Lady.

2. Sybil (1976)

This two-part TV production was Field’s breakthrough and it’s an astounding performance in a top-notch production. Based on the best selling book by Flora Rheta Schreiber, it tells the real-life story of a young woman who suffers from dissociative identity disorder – manifesting itself in 16 different personalities. Working with her psychiatrist (played by Joanne Woodward) we get to see Sybil piece together the severe abuse she endured as a child that created the fractured personalities as coping mechanism. The gamut that Field got play here is astonishing – 16 very distinct personalities ranging from suicidal, to childlike, to anger, to controlling, to flirtatious. Over the course of the film’s 198 minutes Field was able to transition from one to the other in a second with just a change in posture, tone and the tilt of her head. She didn’t rely on histrionics to indicate the shifts – they were subtle but immediate choices as an actress that allowed you to recognize what was happening. And they were both shocking and moving as you pieced the puzzle of the character’s mind together at the same time as the psychiatrist. After the film aired, Field was suddenly on everyone’s radar and the baggage of The Flying Nun evaporated. In a nice example of symmetry, Woodward had played a similar character in The Three Faces of Eve (1957), winning an Oscar that yearfor Best Actress.

1. Norma Rae (1979)

Field made it to the top tier of American film actresses with her performance in Norma Rae, winning just about everyone possible award that year. It’s one of the best performances of the decade and, as with Sybil three years earlier, Field again stunned audiences with the power, focus and grit of her performance as the real-life woman and factory worker who helped unionize a textile plant. Not surprisingly, Field wasn’t the first choice for the role – producers initially approached the more bankable Jane Fonda, Faye Dunaway, Marsha Mason and Jill Clayburgh. I can’t fathom why any of them passed on the role but thank God they did. Field’s work is so indelible you can’t imagine anyone else inhabiting this character in the same way. There’s a no bull, direct approach by Field to the character of Norma Rae that is disarming. This woman isn’t a saint – she has two kids by different fathers, uses men to cure boredom and loneliness, and is able to stand up to anyone. But she’s also keenly aware of the rotten working conditions in the textile plant, the hazards to everyone’s health, and her need to achieve something better. This is a very smart woman – you get that immediately from Field’s performance – and this is the first time she’s has the opportunity to prove it.

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