Sally Field's relentless request for respect: 'The roles I cared about deeply I had to fight for'

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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, who was among last month'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.

"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!"

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" last 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.

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