It's complicated
Actor Sally Field spent years working on her memoir, In Pieces. Elizabeth Renzetti learns why the Oscar-winner eschewed dishing out celebrity gossip in favour of a deep exploration of her life
Saturday, October 20, 2018 – Print Edition, Page P18

It's not where you expect to find yourself on a warm fall afternoon, in an expensive hotel restaurant having an argument with Sally Field about self-doubt. Well, perhaps not an argument so much as a difference of interpretation.

I was keen to ask the actor about the thread of anxiety that runs through her new memoir, In Pieces. It is anxiety rooted in a treacherous childhood, which blossomed as professional worry - that she would not be as good as she wanted to be, no matter how hard she tried, in her work and in her relationships as a daughter and a mother. It's interesting, I begin to say to her, that her selfdoubt continued into her 50s, when she stops me: "I don't think I had any doubt. Where's the doubt?" She's staring at me with those famous brown eyes, from under those famous brown bangs. Not unkindly, but waiting. Warily, I begin to read to her a passage toward the end of the book: "Throughout my fifties I felt crippled with grief because the love of my life was dying. Not a lover, or a husband. My work. I was forever saying to myself. This is what you've got and who cares? Does it really matter?" On the same page, she's written that even when her movie career was "securely chugging along," she could not forget how others had once perceived her: "That I was trivial, uninteresting, a lightweight."

That sounds like self-doubt to me, and in a memoir as open and searching as this one, it doesn't seem an unusual topic for exploration. It's certainly something women who read the book would understand. Field, who is small and intense, is not having any of it, and she leans forward, eager to be understood. "It's a critical voice, but it's not self-doubt. It's a piece of me trying to quiet myself. It's not self-doubt at all. It's more complicated than that. It's saying you'll never get this; it won't be yours." What she's trying to say, I think, is that the things we desire are kept from us by forces beyond our control, but also by barriers within ourselves that we fail to understand.

I shouldn't be surprised that she wants to be precise. She's spent years obsessively writing this memoir - "for seven years it was everything to me, best friend, confidante" - and it is a rare celebrity document, because it's barely a celebrity document at all. Few other stars make appearances - there is former boyfriend Burt Reynolds, who was an ass, and her first film costar Jeff Bridges, who was not. In Pieces is not about a quest for stardom, it's a quest to find adult Sally in the tangled roots of young Sally, growing up in the shadow of the mother she adored and resented. A reader looking for Hollywood gossip might be disappointed, but anyone hoping for a wrenching exploration of relationships and the weight of childhood trauma will likely be enthralled.

Field's mother, whom she called Baa, died almost seven years ago, on Field's 65th birthday. "After my mother passed away," she says, "I felt deeply disquieted. Not just by grief. There was something gnawing at me, some festering wound I had to find and I didn't know what it was.

The only way to find out what was happening and why I couldn't let it go was to really dig down and uncover all the pieces."

Those were pieces she'd kept locked away - some literally, and some in her psyche. To make sense of her memories, Field pulled out boxes of documents she'd hauled around from house to house for years. Many of them she'd never read, including old reviews of her Emmy-award winning performance in the miniseries Sybil and unopened letters from her father, a distant and frustrating figure in her life.

Much more present was her mother's second husband, a charismatic and domineering stuntman who sexually abused Field throughout her childhood. Those incidents, detailed with nuance and precision in the memoir, were the wellspring of a complex relationship with Field's mother. What had her mother known? What had she seen? Toward the end, Field and her mother had an intense confrontation, which - well, I'm not going to tell you. You'll just have to read it to find out.

Could the book have been written without that conversation? "I don't know," Field says with a sigh, leaning back against the restaurant's green velvet banquet, wrapping her arms around herself. "I just know the urgency was in figuring my mother out and how that conversation fit into it."

What is also undisputedly true is that Field is an actor at least in part because her mother - herself a much less successful actor - made it possible. At the age of 12, when Field first stepped on the stage, she felt transported ("a bell rang and the fog cleared") and her mother told her that she was magical.

Later, when Field was a single mother trying to raise three sons, her mother would drop everything to come and look after the boys when her daughter was on set.

Those sets were often punishing, in a way that is only now being understood through the lens of the #MeToo movement. During her first movie, 1976's Stay Hungry, director Bob Rafelson had the whole cast and crew take a vote on whether she was sexy - and later showed up at her hotel room in the middle of the night. Early on she was given Dexedrine to stay skinny - which at least put the "flying" in Flying Nun - and was told by her agent to stick to sitcoms because she wasn't pretty enough for movies.

It's amazing, given these stories, that any female actor managed to stay sane. When I ask her if she thinks things have got better for women in the film industry, she says: "I feel it's gotten louder, which is tremendously good. I'm so appreciative of all the women who've been brave enough to stand up and speak out. ... But that's just the first step. Society has to change. We have to recognize where it begins and that's in the way we teach our little boys and girls to speak to each other. That bad behaviour happens regularly in every single solitary place where men and women congregate."

It has, after all, only been 40-odd years since Burt Reynolds told her to turn down the role of Norma Rae because she'd just be playing a "whore."

She did not, thank God, and the world is better for it. The role of the tough, reluctant union activist won Field her first best actress Oscar and forged a lifelong friendship with director Martin Ritt. Norma's progress from silence to freedom mirrored Field's own journey at the time. "As Norma's sense of dignity gradually emerged, I stood taller," she writes. "As she unleashed her rage, I felt freed. When she found her voice, I heard mine. By standing in Norma's shoes, I felt my own feet. If I could play her, I could be me."

And yet, there was something that kept her from celebrating that success: The Oscars she won for Norma Rae and Places in the Heart are barely mentioned in her memoir; there is no mention at all of the speech she gave when she accepted that second Academy Award ("You like me, you really like me!").

When I mention that to Field, she says that the awards were not within the frame of this memoir; while important, they existed on the periphery of this story. This is true, but I think the truth (like her book) is more profound and subtle, and is possibly tied to the Oscars speech for which she's still unfairly and unkindly remembered. She gets close to it when she says, "Something good would happen and I'd feel accomplished, that I had reached a kind of excellence for a moment. But I felt I had a large crack in my cup because that feeling of accomplishment would drizzle out, until all I had was the feeling of defeat and yet I hadn't been defeated."

In other words, it's complicated.

Like all of our stories, it's complicated and messy. The truth lies in the delicacy of the telling, and the work of deciphering it for others, and ourselves.

Associated Graphic

In her memoir, Sally Field writes about the struggles she endured on film sets, including when a director took a vote among the cast and crew to determine if they thought Field was sexy.


Copyright © 2003 Bell Globemedia Interactive Inc. All Rights Reserved.