WHEN SALLY FIELD DECIDED
TO BE SWEATY, NOT SWEET
I had attended an advance screening of
"Norma Rae," so I already knew that Sally Field's high-voltage
performance as a union actvist would establish her as a major movie
actress. But I was not quite prepared for the humor, candor, and
sexiness she projected when I interviewed her for Newsday one afternoon
in 1979. I guess you could say I liked her, I really liked her.
was out it went out with Debbie
Reynolds and Doris Day," said Sally Field,
recalling her spirit-deflating reign as TVs coy, flutteringly
sweet princess of the sitcoms.
"The kids loved me, but my contemporaries hated me; I was cornflakes
and they were into granola. I couldnt shake the stigma of
The Flying Nun, the sugary image of Gidget;
it was impossible to make the jump from TV into the movies. That
was a no-no in those days."
The silly, stereotype-prone 60s are mercifully dead, and after
today the ghosts of giggly teenyboppers and nutty nuns will no longer
haunt Sally Field. Today is the opening day of "Norma Rae,"
Martin Ritts tough, impassioned film in which the 32-year-old
actress triumphs as a skimpily educated, sturdy-spirited and bluntly
sexual widow who angrily struggles to unionize a drowsy Southern
cotton mill. Shes earthy, eloquent, funky and heartbreaking,
and it would be perverse to visualize next years Oscar race
"When I first read the script, I thought there was very little
of me in Norma Rae," she said, looking strangely fragile, nearly
prim a saucer-eyed, pert-nosed waif in a high-collared blouse
and a lavender skirt, prettily poised amid the splendor of her suite
at the Carlyle Hotel on Manhattans Upper East Side. A decidedly
distant cousin to the sweaty, slang-snapping mill worker.
"As we got into the filming down there in Opelika, Ala., I
started to be Norma Rae, talking like her and holding my
head up high. They can do whatever they like to me,
I began telling myself. They can treat me with disrespect,
haul me away in a police car and throw me in jail, but Im
going to survive, Im going to win, because they cant
take away my dignity. What Id done was find a parallel
in my own life, and dignity was the key word. I wasnt fighting
for my children to be fed, the way Norma Rae was, but Ive
fought to protect my two sons, and all my professional life Ive
been fighting for my dignity."
It was a battle similar to the one waged by her mother, Margaret
Field, a Paramount starlet of the 50s who shone briefly, almost
subliminally, in potboilers spotlighting the likes of Alan Ladd
and Martin and Lewis.
"Maybe I wanted to escape from reality, maybe thats why
I wanted to become an actress from the time I was two years old,"
Sally said. "But I dont think so
there was really
no great unhappiness when my parents divorced. Probably the reason
for my obsession is that my mother, who has always been the primary
person in my life, used to carry me on her hip as she recited speeches
from Chekhov and Shakespeare in her classes at Paramount. I remember
thinking she was doing something lovely and loving. Even at home
wed go off into fantasy-land together. Id do little
pantomimes and shed laugh and applaud. It was a communication
of love, and thats what acting has always been for me. There
never was a time when I didnt want to be an actress, and I
just knew that the only difference between Katharine Hepburn and
me was my education, and once I was educated I was sure my cheeks
would sink in and Id get tall and Id be ever so sophisticated."
Picture the letdown when Sally turned out to be a pint-sized, chubby-cheeked
ingenue scampering through slyly virginal episodes of a wind-up
gadget called "Gidget." Nor was her off-tube scenario
untouched by disillusion. "I married my high school sweetheart,"
she said. "He was more my brother than my lover, my dearest
friend in all the world. Nobody thought to tell me that you dont
marry your best friend. Finally, after seven years, we said, Were
still kids together; adults need to have adult relationships.
Just as adult actresses need to have adult roles to play. "My
first big step was in realizing that I was stuck and that I had
to do something about it. There were plenty of offers to do The
Sally Field Show and lots of other junk, but I said no thanks.
The truth was that nobody around me had any respect for me; to them,
I was a joke. So I took the plunge and changed everything at once
I got rid of my agent, my business manager, my house and
my husband. For three years I dropped out and studied and did summer
stock. When Im ready, I told myself, it will happen
even if Im 82."
It began to happen when she was picked by Bob Rafelson to play the
scrappy, wrong-side-of-the-tracks girl who shapes up rich boy Jeff
Bridges in "Stay Hungry." "That movie made about
12 cents," she said, "because it was too individual and
ahead of its time, but the people who did see it sat up in their
seats and said. Hey, thats not the girl we remember
not Gidget. Then came a real change on TV, of all places.
I did Sybil, and people really sat up and noticed."
who was so entranced by her Emmy-winning performance as the schizy
Sybil that he cast her as his leading lady in "Smokey and the
Bandit," "The End" and "Hooper"
not to mention the prominent role she continues to play in his off-screen
And, come summer, Sally will undoubtedly make a big splash in the
long-awaited "Beyond the Poseidon Adventure." Would she
care to describe her role in that storm-tossed epic?
Is she cast as Michael Caines sweetheart?
"Youve got me! I guess he falls for me and I fall for
him, and I think we both fall into the ocean. Too bad we didnt
all drown at the beginning of the movie. Oh, well, at least I got
to work with some good people, some good actors
I want to make
it very clear that Im talking only about the actors."
Was there a director aboard the ship?
"Yes, and I regret to say his name was Mr. Irwin Allen."
What? The dean of the disaster-producers had the courage to direct
another movie all by himself, despite the critical sting suffered
by "The Swarm"?
"I wish not," she said, discreetly crossing her eyes.
"I tried to help him out, but he didnt seem to think
that was a good idea."
Not that she harbors directorial aspirations. "Most TV actors
have already had to do too much of that. Actually, Im one
of the worlds great puppets, and all I have to do is find
great puppeteers. I found one in Marty Ritt, and another in Burt
Reynolds. Burt just directed me in Vanities at his dinner
theater in Jupiter, Fla., and well be doing The Rainmaker
there as soon as I finish touring for Norma Rae. "
There are still some cynics among us, stubborn folks who cling to
the notion that Reynolds is merely a macho rogue, an appealing prankish
grown-up boy. "He is definitely grown up," Sally said,
reflectively, "and he is definitely a boy. But hes also
a lot of wonderful things most people have not yet been privileged
He sounds good enough to marry; do they plan to become the Lunt
and Fontanne of the 80s?
"I dont know if we plan to marry or not
happy as we are now," she said with a sunburst smile that would
put Gidget to shame. "Were having a great time!"
HERE TO READ GUY FLATLEY'S ONE-ON-ONE INTERVIEWS WITH
JACK NICHOLSON, DIANE KEATON, JACK BLACK, AMANDA PEET, PETER O'TOOLE,
BARBRA STREISAND, WOODY ALLEN, SUSAN SARANDON, AL PACINO, GLENDA
JACKSON, JOHN WAYNE, TUESDAY WELD AND OTHER MAJOR MOVIE PERSONALITIES.