When Sally Field won her second Best Actress Oscar for Places in the Heart at the 1985 Academy Awards, she took the stage and gripped her gold statuette as she went through the requisite thank-yous. And then, she grew breathier and increasingly delighted as she now famously said, “I haven’t had an orthodox career and I’ve wanted more than anything to have your respect. … And I can’t deny the fact that you like me, right now. You like me!”
But even after two Oscars, three Emmys, two Golden Globes, and numerous roles over her 50-year career (from Steel Magnolias to Mrs. Doubtfire, and Forrest Gump to The Amazing Spider-Man) that have earned her a special place in the hearts of American moviegoers and turned her into a full-fledged Hollywood legend, Field still has trouble wrapping her head around the idea that audiences and the industry really like her.
“I can't remember when I didn't feel like the underdog,” Field told BuzzFeed News on a recent sunny March day at BuzzFeed’s Los Angeles soundstage. “Actually, underdog is the understatement of my career. Maybe that's something I put in my own head… but I don't think it is something I put in my head. Everything I've ever had that mattered to me, I had to be such a scrappy fighter to get.”
And Field is once again ready to fight for her latest project, the independent film Hello, My Name Is Doris, in theaters March 11. Touted by its distributor as a “late-life coming-of-age story,” the movie stars Field as the titular Doris Miller, an eccentric office drone who’s still reeling from the death of her mother when a handsome new co-worker named John (played by New Girl’s Max Greenfield) catches her eye. Doris channels her energy into learning everything she can about John, from restaurants he frequents to bands he likes, and sets out to become his perfect girlfriend, despite the decades that separate their ages.
How can I get good enough that they can’t say no?
From there, an unexpected and deeply touching May-December, will-they-or-won’t-they relationship unfolds as Doris’s infatuation gives way to genuine affection and she finds something more significant than a passing crush.
For Doris, who dedicated — and therefore sacrificed — most of her life to caring for her now-deceased mother, the crush is particularly significant because it’s the first time in decades she’s felt free to open herself up to love. That’s what attracted Field to Doris: She represents the idea that your age has nothing to do with how old you feel.
“This is a very unique story in that it challenges the idea of age. Human beings want to connect with each other and it's just a matter of chance how old your body is when you connect with somebody,” said the actor, who turns 70 later this year. “It's so odd when your bodies don't match because one is very young and one is not so young.”
Plus, as Field noted, with a knowing grin, “If he were the woman and I were the man, this wouldn't be so odd in people's eyes.”
The act of pairing a male actor with a female love interest more than half his age has become something of a running — albeit, distressing — joke in Hollywood today. And save for Nancy Meyers’ Something’s Gotta Give (which cast Keanu Reeves as Diane Keaton’s love interest), the few films that do feature women of a certain age in a love story tend to also feature men who are their contemporaries (Meryl Streep and Tommy Lee Jones in 2012’s Hope Springs, for example). That’s why, Field said, “it's kind of a miracle this got made, especially today because you can't define it and the studio system needs to be able to define a movie. Also, [because] the lead is an older woman ... I feel it's my responsibility to do what I can to give her some life. Maybe it's because I grew up in a different era of film, but I'm fighting for Doris.”
Field was born in 1946 in Pasadena, California, a mere 15 miles from Hollywood. Her parents divorced when she was 4 and, growing up, she struggled to find her place. "I was a little girl raised in the ‘50s in a dysfunctional family so I didn't know where to put myself,” she said. “I didn't have a connection with myself because I thought so much of me was not allowed."
But that all changed when she discovered acting at 12 years old. "Everything that I wasn't allowed to be in life was on the stage," she said. "I was mean and I was nasty and then I was overly overtly sexual and then I could tuck it all away and say, ‘Oh gosh, I don't know what came over me.’ The only reason I'm here is that it is my communication with myself, and it is my communication with people so I'm not so isolated. We're all so isolated and acting is the only time I feel not alone.”
At 16, Field made her film debut — in a non-speaking role — in Disney's 1962 sci-fi satire Moon Pilot. Three years later, she began to make a name for herself with a pair of back-to-back lead roles: first as the titular surfer in 1965’s Gidget and then as the resourceful Sister Bertrille in 1967’s The Flying Nun. “My evolution as an actor was really unorthodox. I didn't come from a prestigious acting university. I was the mutt of the group,” she said. “It forced me to have to learn.” But when she tried to parlay her television success into feature film work, Field was unequivocally rebuffed by everyone in town. Not because she was a TV actor, but because she was a woman.
“Men? Sure. We had Steve McQueen and James Garner and Clint Eastwood. They're gorgeous and they’re men — they're allowed,” she said, her voice adopting a stern affectation, of actors who went from television to film. “But can you name the women? Goldie [Hawn] transitioned, but Goldie was part of this hugely popular ‘60s, hippie whole thing. I was the Flying Nun. And I was Gidget before that. These things were stamped on my forehead, stamped on my passport into the next part of my career. ‘I'm sorry, rejected!’ So I had to fight. I had to overcome that. I had to be very honest with myself: How can I get good enough that they can't say no?”
So for the six years after The Flying Nun came to an end, Field trained and auditioned and fought. She fought against the industry’s expectations of women and the expectations she had for herself.
While Field was fighting for film work with middling success, a television role ended up being the project that changed her career: the 1976 TV movie Sybil, about a young woman with multiple personality disorder. Field’s performance earned her widespread critical acclaim and her first Emmy. She laughed looking back on the irony that her big Hollywood breakthrough arrived via the exact medium she was trying to escape.
Soon after, Field’s film career flourished. She went on to star in 1977’s Smokey and the Bandit, 1979’s Norma Rae (for which she won her first Best Actress Oscar), 1984’s Places in the Heart (her second Oscar), 1989’s Steel Magnolias, 1991’s Not Without My Daughter, 1993’s Mrs. Doubtfire, and 1994’s Oscar-winning Forrest Gump.
But amid all of these high-profile roles that almost consistently drew critical acclaim and awards attention, Field was struggling behind the scenes to create her own material. In 1984, she started Fogwood Films, a production company with Laura Ziskin, an acclaimed film producer (Pretty Woman, To Die For, Courage Under Fire, As Good as It Gets) who was the first woman to produce the Academy Awards alone in 2002. Field’s production company later teamed up with Kevin McCormick (Saturday Night Fever).
“It was extremely difficult to get really interesting, diverse projects set up,” Field said, curling up into the corner of a couch inside the soundstage that doubles for a family home. “They weren't interested in seeing nurses in Vietnam; this was before Platoon. I've got news for you, audiences would have been interested in seeing it and it should have been made. We were beating on the doors. But in those days, the Sundance Film Festival hadn't happened like it is, independent film wasn't available... there wasn't the same kind of drumbeat to find a way to get a film made that's so unique.”
"There’s a relentless forest fire inside of me."
But Field was — and, to some degree, still is — conflicted about how outspoken she should be in regard to the lack of opportunities available to women in Hollywood.
“I remember when Diane Keaton commented on this because she too had a development company and it was impossible for us to find projects or get them developed,” Field recalled. “She said, ‘This is not fair! The difference between projects available to men and available to women is not fair!’ And they slammed her for that. They called her a whiner.”
In that moment — and in many that followed — Field said she felt the industry sent her, and all female actors, a nonverbal cue to be quiet and be thankful for the roles they were getting. Though things have improved in the 30-plus years since Field has been working as a producer, plenty hasn’t (i.e., the ongoing gender pay disparity is a conversation that both excites Field and gives her a bit of déjà vu).
“A sign of progress is when the proof is in the pudding. Show me where that is, folks. I don't know,” said Field, citing several so-called “moments” for women in Hollywood that have come and gone with little permanent change. “There's a huge conversation about diversity happening across the boards — which is what it always should have been — that has to do with color and race and gender preferences and men and women. I think perhaps the fact it's not just women now, that there's others involved... I have to say, honestly, the fact men are involved. Thank god for African-American men. You go, boys! We're right behind you. Because the women would still be shut out. It's sad but true. If it were just Jen Lawrence and Amy Schumer — bless their beautiful, talented hearts — they would be shut out. I know it. It would be, 'Oh, poor little rich girl.' You know? So I'm standing right behind Beasts of No Nation. I'm with them. Maybe that's because of my generation of women, who kind of went, ‘I already feel beat up, so I am accepting it.’ I [didn’t] head right towards them and say, ‘Ef you and the horse you rode in on.’ Which, you know, might not have been a bad idea.”
But Field’s frustration with the lack of opportunity and the reinforced idea that she should be happy with what was being offered didn’t diminish her persistence. Although, some days, she almost wishes it would. “There's a relentless forest fire inside of me [and] I wish my fires would begin to dim,” she said, with a small chuckle. “You find a way to do the work you want to do, whether it's on the big screen, the small screen, the stage, you just find a way.”
And Field did just that. Despite the effort she made to escape television for the more prestigious film world in the ‘70s, she returned to television in 2000 to play Maggie Wyczenski, the bipolar mother of Abby Lockhart’s (Maura Tierney) on NBC’s ER.
By that point, Field was a two-time Best Actress Oscar winner and the idea of A-list actors moving to television was unheard of. But the opportunities that had made Field one of the top female actors in the ‘80s and ‘90s had begun to dwindle. “Even when I was supposedly at the top of my game or in my prime, or whatever they call it, even then it was very hard to find projects,” she said. Her last sole starring role in a film was 1996’s revenge thriller Eye for an Eye. “I would be lucky if one came to me a year and I would think, Oh thank god! I found one!”
"Even when I was supposedly at the top of my game, it was very hard to find projects."
The professional realization Field came to nearly two decades ago is now the de facto outlook on the industry at large, where Oscar winners are heading from the big screen to the small one in search of more complex, rewarding roles.
“I taught myself not to care about what is the prestigious move and what is not,” said the actor, who won an Emmy in 2001 for her work on ER and another in 2007 for Brothers & Sisters, where she played Nora Walker, the matriarch of an incredibly tight-knit family. “I've taught myself to take the part of me that feels like, Oh, I want to be starring in films, and put it in a nice little box with a ribbon on it, pack it away, and say, 'That's dandy, honey.' Because there's a bigger, more important part of me that just wants to act.”
It’s a “gnawing, scratching” feeling inside of her that she said screams, “Let me in there, boss! Let me off the bench! Let me do it! Let me do it! I can be big, I can be bad, I can be short, I could be blonde, I could be old, I could be young, just let me loose!"
Because, even after a half century of success, Sally Field is still a fighter.