Film fans long ago made up their minds about Sally Field. The woman spent the better part of 20 years living down her “You like me…right now you like me” Academy Award acceptance speech, a meme before we were using the word the way we do now.
But the ex-child star, “girl next door,” two time Oscar winner and big and small screen mainstay for over five decades has had a fascinating career of highs and lows, fallow periods followed by triumphs, blunders overcome with movies that endure, and big roles in them.
I was watching a re-broadcast of “Punchline” a few nights ago while reading “In Pieces,” Field’s brittle but breezy autobiography, trying to remember why I preferred that film’s grit to the funnier TV period piece “The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel.” I think it’s the failing. Field has always made failure and struggles seem just like that. When she struggles, missteps (buying jokes) and gets kicked, she lets us see that it hurts. Field always has.
Mrs. Maisel (Rachel Brosnahan)? Not so much. Prettier, younger, funnier — sure. But for all the arch situations the show cooked up, the script and performance with its Lenny Bruce turns, she hasn’t let us see her sweat.
Field, however easy it always seemed — TV’s “Gidget” to “The Flying Nun” to movies to Burt Reynolds to Academy Awards (“Norma Rae,” “Places in the Heart”) and onward — had to work to let us see the effort.
“In Pieces” doesn’t dish about co-stars (much), doesn’t wholly explain the career, the choices, the pitfalls, the struggles and personal trials. The dynamic on the combat zone known as “Steel Magnolias” is worth its own book.
But Field talks about being molested as a child, the rough accommodation she made with her mother over the decades, the fights she had with agent and her molesting actor of a stepdad over TV work she didn’t want to do (“Flying Nun”), the #SallyToo “audition” for her sexpot turn in “Stay Hungry” and the humbling experience of being offered Mary Todd Lincoln by Steven Spielberg, having that offer removed when Liam Neeson dropped out of the film.
She can almost bring you to tears in recalling Daniel Day Lewis’ generosity, somehow sensing that she would kill for the role which she was too old for, especially after he was cast. He agreed to meet her, to hear her out.
Only he turned that into a costumed audition with both of them improvising their way through a few minutes, in character and on tape. Lewis set it up, Spielberg went for it and Field got another great part that on first blush, few would think of her for.
When I say “breezy,” I mean “In Pieces” is a quick read. The book has a little drama and her writing just enough gravity about it when the moment calls for it.
She dismisses much of what she did as a child actress and truthfully, poor mouths the TV work in general, but relishes her first decent movie part (hanging with Robert Mitchum, who marked her for great stardom in adulthood, on the set of “The Way West”) and stayed with TV until that Big Break — “Sybil” — gave her a shot at movies.
Mitchum got to sidle up to her Oscar-winning self much later in life and give her a “What’d I tellya?”
Movie star biographies that don’t kiss and tell (Burt Reynolds didn’t like competing with her, a few details about relationships and marriages) aren’t the most scintillating reading. But Field, like somebody who doesn’t mind us seeing her sweat and watching her fail, retells anecdotes about getting humiliated by Actor’s Studio guru Lee Strasberg in front of a class filled with the less famous, and that late-life humiliation of getting, losing and reclaiming Mary Todd for her own with relish and style.
If you’ve ever been a fan, ever gotten over the hubris of “You really like me,” it’s a pretty good read.