The Belle Curve
As 'Glass Menagerie's' Amanda, Sally Field's Career Arc Takes a Classic Turn
By Chip Crews
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, July 18, 2004; Page N01
Sally Field: You're Gidget. You're Sister Bertrille. Norma Rae. The cotton-pickin' mama in "Places in the Heart." That bat-crazy mama on "ER." Forrest Gump's mama with her damn box of chocolates!
Yeah, we've always, always liked you. But after all that, what more can you show us?
"Here," she says, plucking a gardenia in her front courtyard and offering it up. "A little piece of California. Part of the reason we all love living here."
The sun is smiling down on this chosen land, the temperature is right where you'd want it and nearly every tree is in full blossom. Then Sally Field opens her front door to reveal . . . well, a big mess.
In a week or so she'll be moving with her 16-year-old son, Sam, from Brentwood to a new home in the mountains above Malibu, and her foyer, dining room and living room are filled with marked boxes, stacks of pictures, all the piles and bundles that appear when years of one's life are dismantled.
"It's just, 'Change everything at once, why don't we?' " she says with a smile.
Besides the move, the twice-divorced Field's impending changes include the return of her eldest son, Peter, and his family to live in California; the marriage of her second son, Eli; and the reason for today's conversation: She's about to head off for a summer in Washington, where she'll be playing Amanda in the Kennedy Center's production of "The Glass Menagerie." (The production, the finale of the center's Tennessee Williams festival, began previews last night and opens Thursday.)
Her career having already encompassed TV series, movie stardom, producing and directing, Field has lately begun turning her most pointed attention to the stage. Not quite two years ago she replaced Mercedes Ruehl on Broadway in Edward Albee's "The Goat, or Who Is Sylvia?," winning wide acclaim.
In Amanda, the desperately pretentious St. Louis mother trying to force her idea of happiness onto her son and daughter, she's taking on a classic role in the American canon. Over the years it's been played by such noblewomen as Laurette Taylor, Shirley Booth, Katharine Hepburn and Julie Harris.
A cynic might describe Field's shift of focus as purely pragmatic: After all, the film industry has never been enamored of 57-year-old actresses, and she no longer commands leading roles on-screen. But there's another side.
"The problem now, I find, is twofold," she says. "Obviously, they don't make a lot of films that have really good roles for women, 'cause this society and [the industry] are not interested in older women." Pause. "Which is fine, I guess. So most of the things that I get are just awful, and I don't want to do them. But even, honestly . . . so much of American film that I see now, I wouldn't want to be in it anyway. I don't see anything that I go, 'Ohhhh! Boy!' . . . So I really find that my interests are -- as I knew they would be eventually anyway -- in what I haven't really done enough of in my life, which is the stage."
She's seated in her spacious family room, which remains largely sheltered from the disruptions of moving, and she looks -- hey, it must be said -- nearly as perky as ever in jeans and a tie-dyed maroon top. High built-in shelves at one end of the room hold her two Oscars (for "Norma Rae" and "Places in the Heart"), two Emmys (for "Sybil" and "ER") and various other pieces of honorific hardware, including a few basketball trophies brought home by Sam. On one wall is an August 1979 Look magazine cover, grown wry with time, that bears her picture and a caption announcing, "Sally Field Becomes a Woman."
The Washington project, which came at the invitation of director Gregory Mosher ("She was born to play this part") is ideal for her, she says, in more ways than the obvious. "Because I have a 16-year-old still -- I mean, these years are really important for him," she says. "I can't do some of the stuff I'd like to do. I'd like to do something in New York for a long run, but I have to wait. I have two more years to wait, and this fits in perfectly, because it was in the summer and it was a short period of time. . . . For the next two years I have to find things like this to do that fit into my life."
So this is the latest incarnation: Sally Field, woman of the theater. She's been famous for two-thirds of her life -- her first series debuted in 1965, when she was 18 -- and more than many other long careers, hers can be measured in stages. First, and for a decade or so, she was a popular television cutie, frolicking at the beach in "Gidget" or donning her habit in "The Flying Nun," and either way seemingly without a brain in her head.
Then, after years of study with the Actors Studio, she won the title role in the TV movie "Sybil," playing a woman with multiple personalities and utterly transforming herself in the world's eyes. There followed her leading-lady period: She started with fun stuff like "Smokey and the Bandit," opposite then-beau Burt Reynolds, but quickly gravitated toward the higher fare of "Norma Rae," "Absence of Malice," "Places" and "Steel Magnolias." When the star parts began to dry up, she made graceful supporting turns in "Mrs. Doubtfire" and "Forrest Gump" before shifting her attention back toward television. In 2000, she made her big-screen directorial debut with "Beautiful," a tale of the hard world of beauty pageants, although that hat seemed to fit her less well, and those aspirations have been placed on hold.
Still, so many Sallys.
"I think it has to do with what people's needs and desires are for themselves," she responds. "I've never really been totally satisfied with where I was or am. And so -- I mean, I could have been a person that was satisfied with being in television early on. . . . But I wasn't satisfied with that. There was something else gnawing at me that I wanted to do and try. And it was that I wanted to move into film. And I worked really hard with Lee Strasberg at the Actors Studio. . . . And that would constantly change as I got older and what I was capable of doing or playing would constantly change within the film industry -- you know, producing, finding my own things or whatever. And then as I reach this point in my life, there are other things I want to do. I could stay put and, you know, pull back from the movie industry and say, 'I'm fine. I'll just, you know, I'll wait till that one thing comes along, whatever it is.' . . . But my interest isn't there anymore.
"So it just transitions into things I feel really challenged by, really, you know, pushed beyond my own capabilities. And that is onstage. . . . 'Your reach should exceed your grasp, or what's a Heaven for?' "
And that's the thing about the stage: "I don't own it. You know? And maybe you never do."
"All over," she says. "I've really done it all my life. It's just that people didn't know because I never did it in New York or Los Angeles."
The subject is theater, and Field is calmly dispelling any notion that it's a mere latter-day enthusiasm. In fact, she once took a stab -- "many years ago" -- at "The Glass Menagerie." If you weren't aware of that, it could be because it took place in Idaho.
Back then she would have been perfect for poor, frail Laura, the daughter who is the focus and victim of Amanda's most delusional dreams.
"No, I was not," she retorts. "I played Amanda. I was too young to play Amanda, but why not do it in Idaho?" She laughs delightedly. "I just figured, I'm too young for it, you know -- just to be playing with it, just fooling around."
Amanda is a faded Southern belle who chose poorly when the time came to wed one of her numberless gentlemen callers, and now she's trying to make certain Laura marries well. ("Amanda Wingfield, this poor baby, was just born too soon," says director Mosher. "If she'd been born later, she'd have been a labor organizer, like Norma Rae.") She's one in a gallery of Southern women that Field, a lifelong Angeleno, has played in films, including "Norma Rae," "Places in the Heart," "Steel Magnolias" and "Forrest Gump."
She acknowledges each one and says, "It just goes on and on. . . . I think it's because -- well, literature altogether has a fascination with Southern women. But . . . I think moviewise, it's because I have a ruralness about me, and I don't know where it comes from. It just is. It just comes with the package. I don't walk in the room and it screams out, you know, Urban Existence. There are some people who walk in and there's something about them that seems -- I don't want to put names to it but, you know, a sophistication, a something that makes somebody seem urban. And then there's something about somebody who comes in and they seem working class, rural. And I have something about me that seems -- that."
Long ago she learned at Strasberg's knee the importance of recognizing your own qualities. "You have to look at yourself as an actor, objectively," she explains. "What do you bring in? So you know what tools you have automatically in your toolbox."
Her characters, however strong they are, tend to display their vulnerability, which may be a function of being just 5 feet 2 1/2.
"Well, I think size has something to do with it," she says, "but I also think there's something childlike about me, something kind of girlish and soft, so it seems vulnerable. You know, I seem -- I've always seemed fragile in an emotional sense, so therefore that seems kind of vulnerable. And whether I am or not, I know I come in with that. And it's a tool I have to use sparingly. . . . You have to know when to use it, how to use it, and you also have to know how not to use it. An actor has to know how to pull back on the things you are. So that therefore when you do use it, it becomes more powerful."
Jennifer Dundas, who's playing Laura at the Kennedy Center, had never worked with Field before. "She is so fearless," Dundas says. "And I think that, to be perfectly frank, you can get in trouble when someone who has done mostly film undertakes to play a role on the stage -- not just a role but a tour de force. The person can get scared. Because it's really scary. They have more to lose than most actors. Everybody saying, 'Can she do it?' The fear is the biggest enemy. And there just isn't any with her. She's so smart about it, and so incredibly natural and confident onstage. . . . She brings everyone's work to a higher level, because she has such integrity and is so well prepared."
Movie stars spend their lives dealing with audience expectations, but Field is having none of it.
"I never think in my mind any of that," she says. "I'm a trained actor, I -- so the tasks I set up for myself are pretty goddamn complicated, and I require a whole -- whole lot of myself. So . . . I have very little room to consider things that are really not of value before you go onstage. It wouldn't serve me to stand back there thinking that. I'm really so crammed with other things."
Observes Mosher: "Tennessee describes Amanda as a small woman of great but confused vitality. . . . It seems to demand a force of will more than anything else. And Sally just fit the bill."
A modestly tongue-in-cheek proposal: Now that her résumé stretches all the way from Gidget to Amanda -- and who else can say that? -- let's pretend the phone rings and some producer says he has Sally Field in mind for a new staging of "Medea."
"Oh, I'd do it," she says immediately, and laughs. "I could do it! I'd be brilliant! I could do that! I'm like every other actor -- I could be taller! I could be shorter! I could be bigger! I could be smaller! I could make my nose bigger -- watch me!"
Field appears to embrace theater in all its forms. Somewhat surprisingly, she grows especially fervent on the subject of musicals: "Something happens to a human being when you sit in that darkened audience and you see living theater -- to me, especially musical theater. I don't care who you are, I don't care what your day has been or what's happening in the world. Everyone is sort of united in some place that's outside of themselves."
Maybe she could do a musical someday.
She stammers for just a few seconds. "Well -- not if I don't want tomatoes thrown at me." She laughs, sounding like a good sport. "Unfortunately, even though I will be working to do [a musical], working to be able to do that till, you know, the day I die because it's something inside -- I so desperately want to do it. But that's probably pushing my envelope further than my envelope is capable of being pushed. I just don't know that I really have the -- the tools. . . . I've studied a lot to do it. But then I see people who can really do it."
And yet the musical theater has seen some delightfully improbable stars over the years.
"Well, I'll never give up," she says and laughs. "As you can see, I just keep -- the Eveready Bunny."
"The Glass Menagerie" ends its run Aug. 8. Field's next project hasn't fully materialized.
"Kind of, but not," she says. "Nothing really that I can say after this." Abruptly, her face turns Gidget-bright and her voice leaps up about an octave and a half. "It's 'Medea'! I'm doing it! 'Medea's' next!" She laughs again.
You heard it here first. But be advised: Whether it's "Medea" or "Mame" or something else entirely, Sally Field is going to be back at us again.
© 2004 The Washington Post Company
"I've never really been totally satisfied with where I was or am," says Sally Field, who takes to the stage to stretch her wings further in "The Glass Menagerie." The Tennessee Williams drama opens Thursday at the Kennedy Center.
(James A. Parcell -- The Washington Post)