Sally Field’s come a long way, baby. She began as TV’s “Gidget” (1965-66). So convinced she wasn’t going to get the part, Field attended the audition with her beach bag so she could go swimming afterward. She was Gidget even before she got the role.
Field’s trademark — and her Achilles heel — has always been her likeability. In Steven Spielberg’s “Lincoln,” Field, 67, created the unlikeable Mary Todd Lincoln opposite Daniel Day-Lewis. Field’s “Molly” is a hot mess in a corset, a belle with a brain whose ambition has dragged Abraham Lincoln all the way to the White House.
And, yet, while I was troubled by the reverential stance in Spielberg’s “Lincoln,” I pined for the alternate, nothing-but-loose-corset-stays-and-raw-emotions movie that Field appeared to be starring in, and for which she earned an Oscar nomination.
Field, who is getting a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame on May 5, wasn’t unique in being an actress whose popularity the studios were at a loss to comprehend.
The impatient studio cancelled her “Gidget” after one season, and wouldn’t reconsider when the show became a hit during summer reruns. Field’s next major role in her perky-girl-next-door period was Sister Bertrille in “The Flying Nun” (1967-70). Despite the novice’s immense and immediate popularity with audiences, Field disliked the role. As she crossed into her 20s, married and had her first child, the novice was just a contrivance in a cornette: 90 pounds of screenwriter fluff that flew everywhere but never arrived anywhere.
Meanwhile, audiences embraced “The Flying Nun,” which ran for three seasons. But typecast in her own life as the good girl, Field felt increasingly alienated. It was a time when hipsters spit on squares, and this young working mother was wiping off the saliva with an embroidered handkerchief when Madeleine Sherwood, aka the Reverend Mother, introduced Field to Lee Strasberg. The encounter changed her life.
Field, unlike the contemporary casting agents, did not confuse being likeable with being lightweight. At 5 foot 3, she had a Napoleonic resistance to being underestimated. In answer, she caught the era’s women’s lib wave and became intent on shaping characters that were women in full.
Her down-to-the-core lessons with Strasberg developed an actress able to channel both her sweet and splintered selves. She harnessed Gidget’s raw energy and optimism, Bertrille’s stubborn buoyancy and her Actor’s Studio forays into Sartre and serious drama to fulfill something that was very turn of the ’70s: bringing the voice of women to the table. Funny thing: Despite the contemporary rhetoric, she wasn’t exactly welcomed there with a five-course-meal. If she wanted to serve the men, the apron was still hanging on the hook.
And so, although Field did some perky popcorn films with beau Burt Reynolds in “Smokey and the Bandit” and three more movies, she fought for leading lady roles that made her larger case for empowerment. She earned her first Oscar for playing the unlikely union leader in Martin Ritt’s “Norma Rae” (1979), and her second as a Waxahachie widow surmounting hardship in Robert Benton’s Depression melodrama, “Places in the Heart” (1984).
Field was Gidget no more. She received three Emmys for dredging multiple personalities, not all of them likeable, in “Sybil,” as “ER’s” bipolar mother, and the matriarch in “Brothers & Sisters.”
Along the way there was “Forrest Gump,” “Murphy’s Romance,” “Steel Magnolias,” “Mrs. Doubtfire” and, up next, “The Amazing Spider-Man 2,” in which shs reprises her role as Spidey’s Aunt May.
When Field stopped trying to please the audience, she won it over on a deeper level. In a struggle worthy of Norma Rae, the actress realized the full range of her talent despite the limits of the existing structure (including Mr. Spielberg) that was prepared to tell her “no.” From surfer sweetheart to Lincoln’s nag, Field refused to be marginalized even if that meant she had to disobey the lessons of her 1950’s upbringing and would neither sit down, shut up, nor swallow her anger.
(Thelma Adams is a contributing editor for Yahoo! Movies and has served two terms as chair of the New York Film Critics Circle, where she has been a member since 1995.)