Hot off 'Doubtfire' and 'Gump', Sally Field returns to television as an 'Independent' woman

By Lisa Schwarzbaum
Updated February 17, 1995 at 05:00 AM EST

Sally Field is one of those teensy actresses who get bigger on screen. Walking across the outsize back lawn of the Houston mansion that serves as the Texas heart of A Woman of Independent Means, Field looks about the size of a porcelain teacup, and about as fragile. Transformed last October into a 70- year-old for a scene in which Bess Steed Garner attends the wedding of her granddaughter, she takes cautious, old-person steps from her dressing room to her seat in a gazebo. The gusting wind could blow her over as tech crews circle, checking camera angles, and key makeup artist Ann Brodie dabs and pokes at the mottled, veiny, rubbery ”skin” on the actress’ hands. In the middle of it all, Field sits quietly, a wrinkled woman the weight of a hankie, keeping perfectly still while her hands make the faint, absentminded taps and tremors of the old.

Months later, in New York, Field reflects on those flutters. ”My grandmother used to do that,” she says, looking minuscule and youthful and 48 years old at once. She’s in a hotel room, she’s eating a bran muffin, she’s jumping up to phone Sam, her 7-year-old son (with film producer Alan Greisman, from whom she is separated), in Los Angeles. (Field also has two older sons, Peter, 25, and Eli, 22, from a first, 5-year marriage to childhood boyfriend Steve Craig.) ”That generation was so removed from mine,” she says. ”They seemed so calm, they seemed so quiet, but their hands were always moving. Something wasn’t quieted. Something was going.”

And going matters. Going is crucial. Going is why Field started Fogwood Films, her own production company, puts in time as a committee member at the Sundance Institute, and chose to play the title character in A Woman of Independent Means, a six-hour NBC miniseries based on the best-selling 1978 novel by Elizabeth Forsythe Hailey (premiering on Feb. 19).

More energetically than most actresses of her generation, Field has transformed and repositioned herself to fit her professional times. Constricted by the bubbly good-girl goo of her early TV successes in Gidget and The Flying Nun, she freed herself by turning to unconventional roles in the 1976 TV drama Sybil (for which she won an Emmy) and in movies including Norma Rae in 1979 (her first Oscar), Places in the Heart in 1984 (her second Oscar), Murphy’s Romance (1985), and Not Without My Daughter (1991). Using maturity to advantage, she took plain or unflattering or self-mocking roles in 1988’s Punchline (in which she played Tom Hanks’ dowdy housewife girlfriend), Steel Magnolias (1989), and Soapdish (1991). Tired of ”growing things” and ”taking care of people” in running Fogwood Films (through which she developed Punchline, Murphy’s Romance, and Julia Roberts’ Dying Young), she decided to rethink the size and star power of the roles she’d accept, taking smaller, supporting parts — the pretty but pursed, estranged wife of Robin Williams in the 1993 blockbuster Mrs. Doubtfire; or the universally quoted, first-nameless Mama in the 1994 ultrablockbuster Forrest Gump.

Canny instincts? ”You know Joseph Campbell?” she asks, swinging her legs (in brown velvet jeans) over the arms of a lounge chair. ”He said [essentially], ‘You have to give up the life you’ve planned to find the life that’s waiting for you.’ You start going in a direction and you think this is the direction you’re going to go in forever after: Hey, okay, this is what I am. I star in movies. Movies are made around me. I develop films all about this female sense of character. And I carry the film myself. Well, when things change” — she means her age — ”you have to rethink.”

”And also,” she continues, ”the truth of the matter is, I don’t want to be jumping up and down in the same place. I did that. I did those ingenues. If I have to play another ingenue-oy! I’m dancing as fast as I can to reach all the notes, to play all the melodies that are going on.”

In A Woman of Independent Means, Field reaches all the notes in the life of a woman born before the turn of the century who, over the course of seven decades, marries, runs a business, bears children, is widowed, remarries, becomes a grandmother and great-grandmother, fights with friends and family, and makes peace. It’s a role with far more depth than she had a chance to plumb in Gump. Playing Forrest’s mother, she says, ”was like doing a little study but not having to pull off a full-fledged role of aging. So it was good groundwork. She was the best of everything. There was something rosy inside about her, even though she had her sadness. Bess is not like that! Bess is much too spiteful, vain, angry.”

Field sees some of those traits in herself. ”I’m not a very gracious person,” she assesses. ”I’m very hard on people, but, well, there ain’t nothin’ I can say. I’m spiteful! Competitive! It isn’t that I want to do what they’re doing. But I want to have the opportunity to work as much as so-and- so. And I’m so specific [a type]. It’s not like I fit into a whole lot of other people’s categories.”

Even so, producer-director Robert Greenwald (The Burning Bed), who worked on developing Woman for eight years, says that during that time ”there was only one person I could ever think of who could do it. And that is Sally Field.” (Field also serves as executive producer of the project.) And though she claims to be ”hard on people,” she was popular with her Lone Star peers. ”She’s not a big schmoozer, but the cast and crew adore her,” says Greenwald. ”It was like coaching Michael Jordan; she’s focused all the time.”

Like many of her female contemporary colleagues, Sally Field is feeling her way along an unlighted professional path. Unlike many of them, she has avoided being pinned down with the labels of aging ingenue, aging mom, aging sexpot, or aging character actress. On the one hand, this means she can do anything (or, at least, anything offered by an industry that has traditionally given less than 10 percent of all available theatrical film roles to women over 40). On the other hand, who does she want to be next?

”I don’t think I’ll ever be satisfied with the roles I play,” she says, with no girlish smile on her face. ”I don’t know what I’m looking for. It just feels like I’m sitting on a hot poker. Get me going!”