"Morality," says Sally Field, tucking her bare feet under her loden-green sweat suit. Morality.

The word seems to startle her. She is pleased and surprised by its impact. By its honesty. "Figuring out my own ethics."

That's what the diminutive (she's only about 5-feet tall) 35-year-old actress is doing these days. It also happens to be what "Absence of Malice", her new film costarring Paul Newman, is all about.

Field, who stunned her critics by winning an Oscar for best actress two years ago for "Norma Rae," plays a naive, ambitious reporter, Megan Carter, who is duped by overzealous government officials into writing a series of damaging newspaper stories which destroys the lives of innocent people and, eventually, her own.

"It was hard to play someone who was so blatantly wrong. But I'd rather play a person who is flawed. I'm flawed terribly."

And what's Sally Field's biggest flaw?

Long pause. She rubs her small feet, bites her tongue and shakes her shoulder-length chestnut hair.

Can't think of one?

"No, there are so MANY," she squeals, eyes bulging.

Another pause."I hide from people," she says evenly. "There's something about me that won't let friends in easily. It's been difficult."

No, she doesn't have any good friends. No, she doesn't have any old friends. "I don't maintain relationships." she says. "It's not that I can't, it's that I don't. That's the part that bothers me the most."

Sally Field says she could write a book about her five-year love affair with Hollywood heart bandit Burt Reynolds.

"I fell in love with him the second I met him," she says wistfully. "I dedicated my life to him at that instant. It was like, 'Here, you want my leg?' " she flings one leg in the air. " 'Take my leg. Cut it off at the thigh.' "

Her wide, impossibly apple-pie face breaks into a Sally Field signature smirk: the pug nose and the perky chin and the pliable lips over a row of slightly buck teeth. The eyes, big and bittersweet as Godiva chocolates, glisten under spider-leg lashes.

.

"I adore him. I will never be over him," she says softly. "He was certainly the most important thing that ever happened in my life. I felt proud to be with him. He made me laugh. But it was also the most complicated time of my life."

They broke up over a year ago. Field says she doesn't like to talk about it. "People are always looking for things about Burt. It sells newspapers. It's good copy. They want to find out that he's on the right and I'm in the wrong. Or he's the wrong one and I'm the right one. I feel very protective about the relationship we had. It belongs to me and it belongs to Burt."

So she won't be writing that book. "It's not privacy, it's morality," she says.

She has enough privacy these days. For the first time in her life, she's alone.

"I feel oddly content in a way. In my aloneness, as far as not having a man in my life. I always thought life would stand still without a man. But you don't need anyone else to validate your life."

Gidget grows up.

"I'm in a different place than I was then," she says soberly.

Born in Pasadena, the daughter of an actress and a pharmaceutical manager, Field was a show-biz kid with big ambitions.

"I was reading Chekhov and Shakespeare in my living room at age 10," she boasts. "I wanted to be Katharine Hepburn."

Immediately after high-school graduation, she was tapped for her first television series, "Gidget."

"I didn't know how to do anything professionally," she remembers. "I wasn't smart enough to be terrified. I literally arrived on the set and said, 'Which one's the camera?' "

The series was canceled after one season. "I felt I'd never work again," she says.

A year later, she made her first feature film, "The Way West." "I was intimidated. I was lonely. I gained 20 pounds in two days. In my heart, I think it was probably the stupidist thing I've ever done."

In 1967, television executives who had canceled "Gidget" came up with a series written especially for her, "The Flying Nun."

"I said, 'Over my dead body! I'm a serious actress. This is so silly.' "

Naturally, she agreed to do it. After three seasons, it was canceled. "God must have heard my prayers," she laughs.

Meanwhile, she had married her childhood friend Steve Craig, had given birth to the first of her two children and had started studying at The Actor's Studio. "I knew what people thought of me, that I was a Hollywood personality. I had begun feeling slightly ashamed of myself. People saying I had no talent. I wanted to be accepted. I wanted to be liked."

By the end of 1969, Field says she freaked out. "I divorced my husband, sold my car, sold my house, chucked my agent and took my children. I was shrugging off layers. I fell face-down in the pit I was most afraid to go in."

Field didn't work for nearly three years. There was analysis and more acting classes. "I got stronger," she says. "I knew what I wanted."

In 1972, she made three television movies. The next year, she starred in "The Girl With Something Extra." Finally, in 1976, Field got the break she needed with "Sybil," playing a mentally disturbed girl with multiple personalities opposite Joanne Woodward.

That year, she received a phone call from Burt Reynolds. She had never met him before. He wanted her for "Smokey and the Bandit." "I thought it was VILE," she says. Still, the thought of abandoning her innocent image appealed to her female ego. "I would get to play a woman Burt Reynolds was attracted to," she grins. She made four films with Reynolds: "Hooper," "The End," and the two enormously successful "Smokey and the Bandits."

In 1979, she went on location for "Norma Rae." "Going off and doing my own work was a strain" on the relationship, she says simply. The night of the Academy Awards, Burt Reynolds was nowhere in the audience. There were rumors he was miffed at not being nominated for his work in "Starting Over." Reynolds told a reporter he expected to go with Field and she said she'd rather go alone.

In any case, Sally Field remembers what it felt like when they announced her name. "I started walking up to get it, and I was saying to myself, over and over again, 'I did it. Goddam it I DID it. They told me it couldn't be done.' "

Now she's looking forward to a live television play, "All the Way Home," to be aired in December costarring William ("Body Heat") Hurt.

"He sure did make my body hot," Field laughs.

But the all-time temperature record may still be held by Reynolds, morality aside. Asked to name the sexiest man she had ever met, Field didn't miss a beat: "Burt."