Frontlines

Sally Field: the girl next door gets tough—and wins

Laurie Deans June 25 1979
Frontlines

Sally Field: the girl next door gets tough—and wins

Laurie Deans June 25 1979

Sally Field: the girl next door gets tough—and wins

Frontlines

PORTRAIT

Laurie Deans

Sally Field is a lot like Norma Rae, the role that won her the Best Actress Award at this year's Cannes Film Festival. Both women are 32-year-old single mothers of two children, trying to better their working lives— Norma Rae by getting a union into the factory where she and most of those in her small Southern town are employed; actress Sally Field by holding out for worthwhile roles to come along. After a decade of playing what might charitably be called unusual girls (Gidget, The Flying Nun, and a TV series about ESP called The Girl With Something Extra), Sally Field had never played a nonflying, unclairvoyant, flesh-and-blood woman, until Norma Rae came along. It was a long wait.

Now, there is the danger of a new, improved stereotype: Field as Fonda. The critics have been conditioned to accept Barbareilas turning into Bella Abzugs, but Field is bucking that image too.

“Norma Rae wasn’t political,” insisted Field in an interview at Cannes “and in that she’s a lot like me. I’m not a political person at all. I don’t go out and stand on platforms and tell people what I think. I don’t know what I think.”

In Field’s view, “Norma was fighting for her immediate environment. If you told her she was doing something political, she wouldn’t have understood. She was just doing what she had to do to survive.”

In Europe, where Norma Rae has just opened, left-leaning critics were far more disposed to congratulate Field for her portrayal of a determined young woman who discovers her social conscience in the labor struggle, than they were ready to deal with her avowed apolitical perspective.

Director Martin Ritt, whose films ( The Front, Conrack and The Molly Maguires) are more politically aware than the run of American movies, backs up his star’s interpretation. “It wasn’t the labor struggle that was the impetus for Norma Rae,” he told reporters at a Cannes press conference, “it was the character of the woman.”

Norma Rae was based on the real-life story of textile organizer Crystal Lee Jordan, although Ritt’s film is more typical Hollywood fictionalization than a chronicle of a political struggle. Field didn’t base her performance on Jordan at all (a documentary on Jordan’s life is being made by American film-maker Barbara Kopple, whose Harlan County, U.S.A. is perhaps the best, and most authentic American “union” film). She played Norma Rae simply as she related the small-town woman to her own life. “Sometimes I get to be the character,” Field explains, “and I know her better than the writers do. Something happens to me. I live, I breathe, I wake up as this person. If a director won’t listen to me, I want to shoot myself or shoot him.”

Luckily, director Ritt is an unqualified Field fan. “I consider Sally Field to be one of the best actresses with whom I have ever worked—perhaps even the best. Her rushes were the most successful I’ve screened in 15 years. She was fantastic.”

Field herself is short on self-hype. “I guess that’s sort of unattractive,” she says of her political indifference. “I used to nod a lot when people talked about those areas and pretend I was into all that, but I’m really not. I’m not a social being at all.”

The publicity trip to Cannes was Field’s first trip to Europe. Born and raised in southern California’s San Fernando Valley, Field now lives in Laurel Canyon with her sons, aged 6 and 9. “I haven’t moved very far,” she commented in a girlish, Southern-flavored voice; she greets strangers as “you all” and admitted that she felt “like a dodo” because she couldn’t speak French. Her modesty edges on self-deprecation—attractive, perhaps, in an actress who may well win an Academy Award next year, but it undermines the Sally Field who has consciously taken firm control of her career, after 10 years of TV success. In 1974, contrary to everyone’s advice, she kissed television goodbye — along with her agent, her business manager, her house and her husband.

“What I was going through manifested itself in all areas of my life. I had to get out of everything that was drowning me.” The undertow was typecasting; television brought her money and dozens of offers for series, but all for the same kind of character. “I desperately needed to stop perpetuating the spineless, meaningless, stupid, sexless, girl-next-door roles I was always offered. So I just dropped out.”

Her manager told her she was crazy to try for films; she fired him. The early ’70s were, in fact, a dry spell as far as decent women’s roles in Hollywood. So Field simply stayed out of camera range for three years, studying at the Actor’s Studio in New York, and waiting for the right part. It came with the role of a lower-class Southern woman who worked at a health spa in Bob Rafelson’s 1976 film Stay Hungry, best known for introducing muscleman Arnold Schwarzenegger to movie audiences. “Nobody did a back flip over my performance,” she comments now, “but it picked up their heads a little. They said, ‘This isn’t the Sally Field we know so well.’ That led, in the same year, to Sybil, [the television film about a schizophrenic young woman that won her an Emmy] which was the big change in the way the industry thought of me. For the first time, typecasting worked for me. I had the element of surprise on my side.”

But the studios still didn’t know what to do with her. (“They either found me too small, too plain, too young, too sweet . . .”) For the next few years, she played opposite Burt Reynolds, her companion of three years, in a couple of drive-in hits—Hooper, and Smokey and the Bandit—“films that wouldn’t help my career, but which wouldn’t hurt it either.”

Now, the only obstacle that remains is the inescapable fact that, at 32, Sally Field is still as perky as Gidget at 19. No Simone Signoret parts will come her way for some time. Her accent is southern California-casual, her height is barely five feet. Clever camera angles aside, the image still spells All-American Cute. “You’d have a hard time believing I came from Radcliffe,” Field agrees. “I’m more like the average American than the privileged American. I’m not yet like Lord Laurence Olivier or Sir Alec Guinness, whose voices, walk or eyes you don’t recognize when they’re acting. With me, there’s always an essence remaining that’s innately Sally.” Note, however, the ambitions implicit in the phrase, not yet.

“The clichés are slowly being broken, but studios always believe you are what you were in your last film. After Sybil, they said ‘She can’t do comedy’—which was all I’d done up to that point. Now I’m getting a lot of scripts for ballsy women, women lumberjack-types. A lot of people,” she sighs, “don’t have much vision . . . Actresses have to learn to do what Jane Fonda has the gumption to do: take a story that’s interesting to her, and go to directors and writers she likes to do it. Fonda’s been the impetus behind half the good women’s films in America in the last few years.”

But, as usual, a remark both honest and self-critical intrudes. “Women weren’t trained to take charge and I’m not ready to do that yet. I don’t like being a beginner,” she admits. “But it’s what actresses have to do.”

Norma Rae was her lifesaver. She accepted Ritt’s offer even before she read the script. (“Thank God I liked the script.”) She added some of her own touches; when Norma Rae is hard at work with the Jewish union organizer from New York, he warns her not to get beer on his book. “Kvetch, kvetch, kvetch,” drawls Norma Rae as she leaves, in her Southern accent.

The film was shot in 10 weeks on location in Opelika, Alabama, and although Ritt insists the union battle is only peripheral to the central story of a woman’s personal struggle to survive, Norma Rae has been banned in many Southern U.S. textile towns.

Like Norma Rae, Sally Field apparently has a core of personal integrity that would only tolerate so much nonsense. (The new Field film would now have to be called Gidget Goes to College, Graduates, and Gets a Small-Business Loan.) “I’ve begun to realize,” the actress says, “that each different level you reach in your career offers a whole new set of hills to climb and mountains to conquer. I thought that at a certain point it all came your way, that the problem would be how to choose between five brilliant scripts. But it’s just not so. You can be idealistic for so long, then you have to make some choices. In the last five years, I’ve learned that there is no This Is It. It’s one step at a time, one foot in front of the other.”