By Ken Tucker
Updated February 17, 1995 at 05:00 AM EST

What a plucky, odd duck the six-hour miniseries A WOMAN OF INDEPENDENT MEANS (NBC, Feb. 19, 20, and 22, 9-11p.m. each night) turns out to be. Spread over three evenings, unfolding its tale in a leisurely way that’s increasingly unusual for made-for-television movies, A Woman of Independent Means has a pleasingly diffuse, almost aimless structure.

The millions of people who read the 1979 best-selling novel of the same name, by Elizabeth Forsythe Hailey, know that the title character is Bess Steed Garner, an earnest turn-of-the-century Dallas woman, played here by Sally Field. Those of us who did not read the book may be forgiven for approaching this material with much trepidation. This is, after all, going to be just one of those period soap operas in which passion molders but never has the bad manners to actually ignite, right? Well, yes. And anyway, when two of your leading men are a black-faced Tony Goldwyn (Ghost) and a smug-looking ROn Silver, the less smoke given off by passion the better.

But it turns out that A Woman of Independent Means is stubbornly, intriguingly true to its title. As directed by Robert Greenwald (The Burning Bed) and adapted by screenwriter Cindy Myers (Incident in a Small Town), it maintains a focus on Bess — her implictly feminist struggles for financial and emotional freedom; her quiet strength in the face of macho bluster from the men she loves; her stormy relationships with her children, who grow up to be just as feistily independent as their mother.

Bess narrates the story of her life, and Field pulls off the trickiest aspect of the role: to portray Bess over a period of seven decades. On the first night of the miniseries, Field is still able to call upon the bright-eyed girlishness she once tried to suppress in order to convince us that she was a serious actress and not just a lucky flying ex-nun. She takes Bess from gullible innocence, a young woman mindlessly adoring of her first husband (Goldwyn), to Bess’ rougher middle age. After Goldwyn’s character succumbs to pneumonia, Bess has to fight to take over the reins of his insurance business, which involves a struggle with her mother-in-law, played with implacable coldness by Brenda Fricker (My Left Foot).

Bess flirts with Silver’s smoothy financier but settles down with husband No. 2, a rough-edged Texan played by Australian Jack Thompson (Breaker Morant). The men in her life, however, aren’t nearly as important to Bess as her children, moody Robin, silly Drew, and bratty Eleanor, portrayed over the three nights by various actors of various ages. If this Woman of Independent Means has a message, it is that you can’t run your family the way you run a business — imposing control just leads to chaos. It’s an obvious bit of wisdom, but Field’s performance — so careful and modest — isn’t obvious at all and lends A Woman of Independent Means the subtlety to guide you through its three nights. B