Few performers can match the hyperbolic curve of the five-decade career of Sally Field. What other actors have transitioned as seamlessly from the charming, empty-headed world of network television to Oscar-winning glory and the unmitigated respect of their peers?
Even more impressively, perhaps, Field has managed to maintain a length Hollywood career without ever once being tarnished by rumor or scandal. In fact, if you Google “Sally Field” and “scandal,” the worst thing—in fact, the only remotely relevant thing—that comes up is a National Enquirer piece from 2011 that’s below even that tabloid’s subterranean standards.
She got her first break playing the titular boy-crazy surfer girl on “Gidget” in 1965, and followed it up with, infamously, “The Flying Nun,” a gig Fields has admitted she despised. Shedding that perky, girl-next-door image wasn’t easy or quick, but studying with Lee Strasberg in the mid-1970s prepared her for her breakthrough, Emmy-winning role as a woman suffering from multiple personality disorder in “Sybil.”
From there, her career prospered on parallel tracks: As the relatable object of Burt Reynolds’ desire in the “Smokey and the Bandit” films and others, Field mined the cuteness that had made her a star. But the genuine fire beneath that diminutive exterior was what landed her two Best Actress Academy Awards in a span of five years, first for the indomitable union organizer in 1979’s “Norma Rae,” then as a Depression-era widow fighting to save the family farm in 1984’s “Places in the Heart.”
It was in her acceptance speech for that second Oscar that Fields uttered the much-parodied line “…you like me, right now, you like me!” (Not “you really like me,” as she’s often misquoted.) Only Katharine Hepburn, with four, has won more Best Actress statues than Field, but since the mid-1990’s, her filmography had been somewhat sparse before a resurgence in recent years.
Field played Peter Parker’s Aunt May in Marc Webb’s 2012 “The Amazing Spider-Man” and its sequel, but it was her performance as Mary Todd Lincoln in Steven Spielberg’s 2013 “Lincoln” that reminded audiences and critics of her talent, and garnered her an Oscar nomination for Best Supporting Actress. It’s hard to imagine two characters more disparate in tone than Gidget and Mary Todd Lincoln, and to have played them both, even nearly fifty years apart, requires a malleable talent.
Field’s new film, while smaller in scale than a Spielbergian history lesson or a super-hero saga, is uniquely suited to the actress’ talents and experience. In “Hello, My Name is Doris,” she plays a socially inept, eccentrically clad woman who is left to fend for herself after her mother dies. Doris is an unusual character—something of a hoarder, and clearly inexperienced in the ways of the world, but functional enough to work an office job in Manhattan that she commutes to from her Staten Island home.
There, after attending a self-empowerment seminar, she develops a crush on her new boss, the much younger John (Max Greenfield of TV’s “New Girl”). Doris’ unrequited affections are played for laughs, but never in a way that diminishes her humanity. And that balancing act succeeds thanks to the unexpectedly sensitive direction of Michael Showalter (“Wet Hot American Summer”) as well as the inexhaustible dignity of Sally Field. No matter how paper-thin her characters, Field has always embodied them as full-fledged individuals, and Doris is no exception.
I had the great pleasure to speak with Field by telephone last week, and she was as gracious and generous with her time as you’d expect.
Q: The first half or so of the movie is relatively light-hearted, but then it takes something of a darker turn as it explores Doris’ personality. Was it a challenge to pivot your performance that way?
A: It was always a dance, how to have that interior going on even though you weren’t really articulating it until certain times when it was finally delivered. It is a dangerous movie in that way, and Michael and I were talking about it all the time. How do you make her a real, three-dimensional person and not a cartoon or a caricature? You have to root her in real places and in what her history’s been.
Q: It almost seems like a microcosm of the way your career has evolved, from these upbeat, perky characters to playing Mary Todd Lincoln. Does that reflect how you’ve been able to evolve as a perfomer?
A: Well, I can’t really answer that. When I did “Gidget” I was seventeen. When I was a child, I spoke as a child, you know? One of the reasons, when I read this screenplay, that I wanted to do it was that it’s a coming of age story. Some people have called it a love story, but I think it’s a coming of age story. The challenge of being a human being is will we open up to every different stage of our life? Or will there come a stage where it opens up and we’re to transition to another part of our existence and we don’t have the courage to do it? Because it’s so frightening to be old and new. Because it’s so vulnerable to not know where to put your feet, and not know what’s expected or what you want. And that doesn’t just happen in adolescence. That’s the big one, but they’re all transitions—from being a toddler to a child, from being an adolescent to a full adult, and then a maturing adult. How do I allow what I am now into my life and fully be it?
Q: Wow, you’re really dropping some knowledge here. That’s some serious wisdom. I’m not sure I can follow that up with “What was it like working with Tyne Daly?” [The onetime “Cagney & Lacey” star plays Doris’ acerbic best friend.]
A: Absolutely you can! Because she surely knows what it is I’m talking about! Tyne and I worked together a kabillion years ago, in regional theater, and we just fell together instantly as if we’d never been apart for one single moment. That’s how good and generous and open she is. Talk about somebody who can do comedy and flip right into sadness! That’s incredibly hard to do.
Q: I need to ask about Doris’ wardrobe, since even more so than for most characters, it’s an integral part of who she is and our perceptions of her. What sort of input did you have into crafting her look?
A: Total input. Michael wanted me to create the character so I did. I copied her hairdo from a Brigitte Bardot hairdo from 1961, except Bardot’s was blond and with a postiche on top. And we had a great costume designer. Her name is Rebecca Gregg, and she went and collected racks and racks and racks of clothes from the old wardrobe houses—Western Costume, and the Universal wardrobe department. And she went to thrift shops and Goodwill. We had no idea who Doris was. We knew she had to be a certain degree of eccentric, but we didn’t know where that would land. And so I just started playing dress-up, and slowly, something started to emerge, like a picture in a development bath. We started to see who she was.
Q: Michael Showalter comes from a sketch comedy background, and nothing in his previous feature films has the level of empathy or emotionalism that we see in “Doris.” What convinced you that he would be able to help you create a moving, three-dimensional character?
A: I didn’t really know his background. I had seen one of his films, it was really quirky and had a central character that had a sadness to him. You’d have to ask him to get this exactly, but I’ve heard him say that [“Doris”] was the first time that he felt he had his own voice. This is very much Michael. He didn’t want Doris to be somebody you laughed at her expense. That it wasn’t a mean laughter, but more a sense of wanting her to find her way and rooting for her.
Q: Without spoiling anything, what’s your take on the final, enigmatic shot of the film?
A: Well, I can’t really have a take without spoiling it, but we went around a lot about what it should be, and I think we ended up with the perfect choice.
(“Hello, My Name Is Doris” opens on Friday, March 18, at the Living Room Theaters.)