“I’ve flown on wires, surfed in the ocean, rode on horses in wagon trains and fast cars. I’ve had multiple personalities, worked in a textile mill, and picked cotton. I’ve been Mrs. Doubtfire’s employer, Forrest Gump’s mother, Lincoln’s wife, and Spider-Man’s aunt.
“On stage was the one place I could freely be me. When I got off stage, I felt shy, and careful, and hidden. I would think and rethink everything before I could do anything. But on stage I never knew what I would say or do. I would surprise myself.
“I wasn’t looking for the applause or attention, even though that’s nice—sometimes. It was never about a need to hide behind the characters of other people. Acting to me has always been about finding those few precious moments when I feel totally, utterly, sometimes dangerously ALIVE! So the task has always been to find a way to get back to the work—to claw my way to it, if necessary.
“Struggling to climb out of the box of situation comedies in the 60s and 70s took a fierceness I didn’t know I had. I was a little white girl with a pug nose born in Pasadena, and when I look around this room tonight, I know my fight, as hard as it was, was lightweight compared to some of yours. I know that for you, just like for me, it has not been easy. But you know what. Easy is overrated.”
That was part of the raw, vulnerable, and honest speech 76-year-old Sally Field gave on February 26, 2023, when she was presented with the Screen Actors Guild’s highest honor—the Life Achievement Award—by her co-star in The Amazing Spider-Man, Andrew Garfield, who paid tribute to Field by saying:
You evoke awe in every actor’s heart. You are a north star for all of us.”– Andrew Garfield
When Sally Field looked out at an audience of her peers—the cream of the crop A-listers in Hollywood—she saw them standing, and in some cases crying, and heard their rousing applause. If she had one tiny bit of doubt that she deserved this award for her brilliant body of work, it was surely vanquished.
LIFE LESSON: Is there a goal you are so fiercely passionate about achieving? Stay the course. Don’t give up no matter how hard it is.
The Early Years
Personally, I don’t feel a need to recount how Field embarked on her professional career in 1964 at the age of 17, when she said her first lines on a freezing cold beach in Malibu as the small but feisty surfer-girl named Gidget. Or that she became part of America’s pop culture when the show was picked up as a weekly half-hour TV series.
No need to discuss her role as Sister Bertrille in the God-awful TV series The Flying Nun that ran from 1967-69—except to mention that during the filming of the show, Field suffered from depression.
In her brutally honest 2018 memoir In Pieces, Field disclosed that she didn’t want to do the show. The perky actress with the pug nose, who desperately wanted to please and be liked turned the part down, which was incredibly brave for a young girl, who didn’t want to appear ungrateful.
“But my stepfather said, ‘Don’t get on your high horse. If you don’t take this part, you may never work again.'” So she did.
But playing The Flying Nun wasn’t the source of Field’s depression. It stemmed from the fact that she had been harboring a dark secret for years—that from the age of seven until she was fourteen, she had been sexually abused (touched and fondled, but not penetrated) by her much-loved stepfather, Jock Mahoney, a charismatic Hollywood stuntman.
Field was angry with her mother for years, wondering how much she knew about the abuse. Though her mother divorced Mahoney in 1968, Field didn’t tell her the truth for decades, not until she was cast as Mary Todd Lincoln in the 2012 film, Lincoln.
Difficult issues to overcome
Field had a lot to overcome—childhood insecurity, sexual abuse by her stepfather, anger toward a mother who didn’t protect her; an abortion when she was 17 right before she starred in Gidget; being half-conscious after smoking hash (something she’d never done before) and finding songwriter Jimmy Webb grinding away on top of her; developing an eating disorder and taking diet pills after her first divorce; blatant “casting couch” sexual harassment, and a much publicized relationship with Burt Reynolds, whose macho insecurity resulted in his trying to control her.
Norma Rae – An Academy Award Performance
In 1979, she played a single mother working under terrible conditions in a textile mill, who despite threats on her life, became a union organizer in 1979’s Norma Rae. This is my favorite scene in the film!
When Burt Reynolds criticized her for taking the part, Field had an epiphany. “As Norma Rae unleashed her rage, I felt freed. When she found her voice, I heard mine…If I could play her, I could be me.”
In a 2022 interview with Variety, Field said, “He (Reynolds) was not someone I could be around. He was just not good for me in any way.”
Reynolds was wrong about Norma Rae. The film earned Field an Academy Award nomination in 1980, along with four other great actresses— Jane Fonda (The China Syndrome), Marsha Mason (Chapter Two), Bette Midler (The Rose), and Jill Clayburgh (Starting Over). Sally Field deservedly took home the Oscar for her powerful performance.
LIFE LESSON: In her acceptance speech, Field said, “They said this (film) couldn’t be done. She thanked those who fought to get it made. She especially thanked director Marty Ritt (1914-1990) who she said was Norma Rae, a man who fought all his life to make courageous films, even if their box office potential was .75 cents.
Perhaps that’s because in 1952, Ritt was innocently blacklisted as part of FBI director J. Edgar Hoover’s witch hunt to round up communists in Hollywood. He supported himself for five years teaching at the Actors Studio before going on to direct many films that earned him acclaim. It’s important to stand up and speak out against hatred and bigotry like Marty Ritt.
Field’s body of work is significant, having acted in both dramas and comedies, but I’m only interested in mentioning those films that conveyed a message about important social issues.
In 1976, she took on a brave and difficult part as Sybil, in the two-part TV film Sybil with Joanne Woodward. Her portrayal of a real woman who had sixteen personalities earned her a Prime Time Emmy Award.
A Second Oscar For Places in the Heart
After Norma Rae, Field gave another stellar performance in the 1984 Places of the Heart, in which she played a young woman during the 1935 Great Depression in Texas, who is forced to run her cotton farm after the death of her husband.
For the second time in her career, Sally Field was nominated for an Oscar for Best Actress. Once again she was up against four formidable professionals—Judy Davis (Passage to India), Jessica Lange (Country), Vanessa Redgrave (Bostonians), and Sissy Spacek (The River.) Once again Sally Field proved that people liked her.
In Steel Magnolias (1989), Field played the mother of Julia Roberts, who receives an organ transplant, is advised not to get pregnant, and dies shortly after giving birth. Also in the film were Shirley MacLaine, Dolly Parton, Olympia Dukakis, Daryl Hannah, Sam Shepard and Tom Skerritt, who later played Field’s husband in the TV series Brothers & Sisters.
Not Without My Daughter
Not Without My Daughter (1991) —based on a book by the same name—is about a real American citizen (Field) who travels to Iran to rescue her daughter from an abusive husband. This is just what the real Sally Field would have done. She doesn’t have a daughter, but she does have three sons, and she is a fiercely devoted mother. (More later about her youngest son Sam.)
In the 1994 endearing film, Forrest Gump, Field played the mother of Tom Hanks, who was rejected by society because he wore braces to correct a crooked spine and had a low I.Q. Field says of Mama Gump. “She is a woman who loves her son unconditionally. A lot of her dialogue sounds like slogans, and that’s what she intended.” Sayings like “Life is a box of chocolates—you never know what you’re going to get.” Stupid is as stupid does.” And “I happen to believe you make your own destiny. You’ve got to do the best with what God gave you.”
Then there was Steven Spielberg’s Lincoln. After buying the rights to Doris Kearns Goodwin’s book, Team of Rivals, Spielberg told Field in 2005, he wanted her to play Mary Todd Lincoln.
“To portray the much-maligned, mentally challenged Mrs. Lincoln, in a film directed by one of the most creative filmmakers who has ever lived, was an opportunity I felt with every cell in my body,” Field wrote.
But then the “droning voice” inside her head warned, “Don’t start wanting that. It will never happen!”
And it almost didn’t. After Liam Neeson dropped out of the film and Daniel Day-Lewis was cast as Lincoln, Sally knew there was a problem. Lincoln was ten years older than his wife, and Field was ten years older than Day-Lewis. Spielberg apologized, but told Field he no longer saw her as Mary.
“I don’t give up without a fight,” she told Oprah.
In case you didn’t watch the video, here’s the gist of it. When Spielberg told Field she wouldn’t work out as Mary, she doubled down, deeply researched Todd Lincoln’s life, gained twenty pounds, and insisted on a screen test.
Even after she captured the emotionally tormented, staunchly pro-emancipation woman, Spielberg wasn’t convinced. So Daniel Day-Lewis flew in from Ireland for one day to meet Field. She greeted him as Mr. Lincoln, and he greeted her as Mother—a name Lincoln sometimes called his wife after she gave birth to the first of their four sons. The chemistry between Field and Day-Lewis was undeniable. A short time later, he and Spielberg called Field together to say she had the part.
Field won a third Oscar (Best Supporting Actress) for her role as Mary. As she said in her SAG Life Achievement acceptance speech on February 26, 2023:
“I have been lucky enough to be a part of projects whose screenplays were so good my hands shook the first time I read them. Projects with such deep and complicated characters that the process of understanding, of owning them, opened and revealed parts of myself I wouldn’t have otherwise known. I’ve worked my whole life. I’ve ridden the highs and tried to learn from the lows. In all of these almost 60 years, there is not a day that I don’t feel quietly thrilled to call myself an actor.”
Brothers & Sisters
From 2006-2011, Field played Nora Walker, the matriarch of the wealthy Walker family on the hit TV drama, Brothers & Sisters (I loved this family.)
The storylines deal with the personal, political, and professional lives of Nora and her five children—Rachel Griffiths and Balthazar Getty (both executives at the family’s company), Calista Flockhart (a conservative activist), Matthew Rhys (a gay lawyer), and Dave Annable (a medic and veteran of the Afghan War, who returns with a drug problem).
An Advocate for LGBTQ Rights
All those struggles Sally personally went through and all those difficult acting roles she took on playing the underdog, the disenfranchised and unacknowledged, were in preparation her for becoming an advocate for LGBTQ + rights when her youngest son, Sam, came out as gay at 19. Since then she has been by his side fighting for the rights of people of all sexual identities.
It’s not against nature if nature has actually done this. Sam was always Sam, this wonderful human that he is, from the time he was born. I welcomed him to welcome himself and find that part of his life.”– Sally Field
Right now, 50 percent of LGBTQ Americans reside in one of the 30 states without statewide legal non-discrimination protections the LGBTQ community, meaning millions of people remain at risk of being fired, denied housing, or refused a service because of who they are or whom they love.
Field said it’s sad that some parents disown their gay children. Like Mama Gump, Sally loves her three boys unconditionally—something Peter and Eli Craig, and Sam Greisman are grateful for.
In 2012, when Sam presented his mother with the “Ally for Equity” Award at the Human Rights Campaign Gala, he said:
When I came out, she didn’t bat an eye. In fact, she was overjoyed. Being gay was just one more thing she loved about me. She couldn’t be more supportive.”– Sam Greisman
Don’t be frightened. And don’t put your own prejudices or fears about sexuality on your children. As long as I am upright, I will fight so that Sam and everyone’s children and grandchildren, sisters and brothers will be protected in every state in the United States.”– Sally Field
Kennedy Center Honors – 2019
In 2019, Sally Field was honored with a Kennedy Center Award. Here are tributes from three of her lifelong friends.
Tom Hanks (Forrest Gump)
Pierce Brosnan (Mrs. Doubtfire)
Steven Spielberg (Lincoln)
Social, Environmental, and Political Causes
Like Crystal Lee Sutton, who was the inspiration for Norma Rae, and so many other outspoken women, Sally Field has always used her voice to bring attention to injustices and inequities, as well as climate change.
Thank you Sally Field for your years of dedication to your craft, which has resulted in so many hours of enjoyment and inspiration for the world. You are small in stature, but you are a giant among women with a brave and mighty heart.