I don’t know which Sally Field it is people encounter these days. The loving matriarch of Mrs. Doubtfire, Forrest Gump, or Punchline? Or is it the inanity of Gidget and The Flying Nun? Or is it the feminist icons built on stunning acting chops like Norma Rae or Sibyl? For me, I was in that space between these extremes: “Gidget” in syndication during the summer and (holy cow!) “Sibyl” in a high school psychology class (even as her character idly flopped about in Mrs. Doubtfire lacking any intelligible motivation). I decided to listen to this memoir to hear what her life was like.
It was much more than I expected (but aren’t all lives?), much heavier, much graver, and much more vulnerable. Ms. Field, at this time in her life, is putting her whole self out there for us to see and is bravely pointing to every wound, every vulnerability, and every complex truth she can find. It’s so strong, so tragic, and so powerful that I don’t know of many other tales like it.
Owing to her supreme talent as a performer, the audio narration is outstanding. Her ear for script-writing means that we have a memoir defined by certain acting beats. She knows when she’s acting as her own voice-over, when she should externalize a thought process, and how to create a question in the listener that heightens tension toward a thematic resolution.
Behind the narrative of this actor’s transformation from an adorable Pasadena girl-next-door to someone who could go toe-to-toe with anyone in the Actor’s Studio is a stunningly vulnerable, vivid recounting of how a broken childhood haunts permanently and hurts until you face it.
Eden at the End of I-10
The dreams of California all start off well, at first. Sally’s mother is an up-and coming actress and her father is in sales. Along come the kids and, in a series of crimping collapses in fortune and marital stability, her father and mother divorce with her mother retaining custody.
And in comes her new step-father: rugged, handsome, and death-courting, he leads the new family through a boom and then bust in his own star. From houses with slides and horses to tract-home ranch-style modernity in Tarzana, it’s a real story about the impact to Dreamers and their kids on chasing the Hollywood dream.
School days, visits with grandma and stilted visits with Dad fit to a certain post-war idea of Boomer childhood.
But beneath all that, Sally opens up about the sexual abuse she endured from her step-father, the Tijuana abortion her high-school boyfriend occasioned literally days before landing “Gidget,” and being molested by the doctor during said abortion.
Through her careers she fights through and sucumbs to sexual harrassment, sexual hazing, and even the idea that she can’t possibly know or be entitled to what she wants.
Along these years, Ms. Field develops dissociative strategies and pursues acting as a singular place where she can hide herself from the abuse, where she can do whatever needs to be done because it’s not really her in her life.
Particularly gripping is her complex narrative of the shame and pride she felt as she performed a sexual game with her step-father massaging him in a night-dress and letting him peek up the dress. To have power, to be wanted, to not be a victim all race against a wash of humiliation and debasement that, when read by her, had my heart pounding in a confused patter of peril.
As Ms. Field starts to have material success she finds herself in a Ferrari but is never able to give up the feeling that she’s poor. She relates that this was caused by her childhood but it explains a certain calculating ruthlessness to her career.
Many roles for which she’s iconic are given short shrift by her as they were taken to make a mortgage payment or some other quotidian banality like her agent said so. It’s clear that much of her career is nothing that she considers her own. However the path from “Gidget” to the Actor’s Studio and a few key roles are fully claimed by her and recount her transformation into an actor’s actor. In these tales, the narration is electric.
As an Actor
- Banging against the strictures of her TV contracts and their pablum expectations
- Finding the Actor’s Studio West
- Singled out for adoration by Strasberg
- Singly humiliated for her asshole attitude by the same
- Norma Rae
- Fighting Spielberg to play Mary Todd Lincoln (for shame Mr. Spielberg, asking her to audition)
Between her childhood abuse and emotional alienation along these iconic stepping-stone moments, her “You like me, you really like me” speech takes on a much darker hue. That speech might well have been the first time she actually permitted her hidden-away-real-self to feel some of the joy that the performer had wrought.
Watch Ms. Field’s Face
As a Human
- Multiple marriages
- Long-Term relationship with pill-addict and narcissist Burt Reynolds
- Mother to three
- Drugs, diet, weight
As a Daughter
Toward the end, having braved so much of the horrible circumstances of her life and having taken us along on an amazing ride in a fickle business and having withstood the test of time, Sally takes us back home, back to the intimate vale of her home-life where she faces her mother’s looming death and a need to reconcile old wounds with honest revelation. It’s tender, tragic, and touching. Ms. Field reminds us how short our time here is and how deeply not sharing our truths can saw into our psyches.
It’s not easy, but it’s worth it. A true American master of acting and a damn fine memoirist.