Friday, October 20, 2017

Sally Field, THE WAY WEST

It's unusual for a guy to name a woman as a role model.  When someone is asked to name role models, he or she usually selects people of the same gender.  But Sally Field has been a role model for me in my career for quite a long time.  It just hit me as I write this that I've been a Sally Field fan for over half my life.  She first won my heart when I was boy and watched her every week on ABC as GIDGET.  That popular, perky Southern California teen character was first introduced in a light, entertaining novel (which I read), then she was successfully transferred to the big screen and first played by Sandra Dee.  GIDGET had other big screen adventures and was played by other young actresses.  Then she went over to prime time TV and a newcomer named Sally Field booked the lead role that sitcom.  She was perfectly cast and a great Gidget.  My mom watched her as Gidget too.  Her next ABC sitcom was THE FLYING NUN.  This was one wacky sitcom idea -- in the Convent San Tanco in Puerto Rico, there was a new American nun who, when the wind was just right, could fly thanks to the flaps on the head covering of her nun's habit.  Sister Bertrille would fly over San Juan, drop in and do good deeds as sort of a "Sister Fix-It."  Folks in the Hollywood industry made fun of the show.  Sally Field and that sitcom became a Hollywood punchline.  Just like GIDGET, I watched every episode of THE FLYING NUN.  To me, Sally Field made it work for the time it ran.  She was a serious young actress doing comedy, which is very hard work.  In between ABC's GIDGET and THE FLYING NUN, both shows of the 1960s, she made her big screen debut in a western with some Hollywood heavyweights.  You see her as soon as the action of 1967's THE WAY WEST starts.  She's the lusty, slovenly frontier teen seated on the back of wagon and holding a critter as the wagon heads west.  Her hormones are galloping like a runaway horse.  As her mother says, it's a chore to keep the girl away from every "three-legged boy" she sees.
The stars of the film were 3-time Oscar nominee Kirk Douglas...
 ...1-time Oscar nominee Robert Mitchum....
 ...and 1-time Oscar nominee Richard Widmark.
Newcomer Sally Field had a scene with Kirk Douglas and a scene with Robert Mitchum.
Her character is named "Mercy" and takes up with a married, older man on the journey.  He'll break her heart.  Field may seem an unlike choice to play a horny frontier teen, but you see that she approaches her material and her role with a serious attitude.  She does the work even though the industry wasn't taking her seriously then.  I know the feeling of being serious about the work I did but not being taken seriously within an industry community.  And I know that doing comedy well is often dismissed as easy, light work when it's just the opposite.  You can see that Sally Field has a keen awareness of and commitment to her character.  Mercy is an uneducated, poor pioneer teen who thinks that having sex with a male will not only make her feel good, but will make her special to him.  Sex will lead to instant love.
After THE WAY WEST and THE FLYING NUN, Sally Field dug in, studied hard, challenged the industry and delivered a stunning performance in the difficult role of SYBIL.  That 1976 TV mini-series cast Sally Field as the young woman under psychiatric analysis to get to the root of the multiple personalities dysfunction that make her life sad and chaotic.  It was an extraordinary performance.  But she still have to prove herself again.  She got across-the-board rave reviews for SYBIL but her agent didn't think she had the right stuff to be a film actress.  She fired that agent.

Sally Field is a native-born Southern Californian who has a gift for playing Southern women.  Mercy has a Southern accent in THE WAY WEST.  Sally Field has been nominated for the Oscar three times.  She won Best Actress for playing NORMA RAE (1979), a Southerner.  She won another Best Actress Oscar for playing a Southern woman in PLACE IN THE HEART (1984).  She was a Best Supporting Actress Oscar nominee for playing Mary Todd Lincoln, a First Lady with a Southern accent, in LINCOLN (2012).

When she played that boy crazy teen riding on the back of a covered wagon in THE WAY WEST, who would've thought she'd be the 2-time Oscar winner in that cast?

The actress brought me luck in my early TV career. The first celebrity interview I did that aired national was a 6-minute piece on Sally Field after her NORMA RAE victory.  She was promoting BACK ROADS, a 1981 comedy she did with Tommy Lee Jones.  She and Tommy Lee Jones reunited for Steven Spielberg's LINCOLN.

Sally Field was also a guest on my VH1 talk show in New York City when she was promoting another comedy, 1988's PUNCHLINE co-starring fellow ABC sitcom graduate, Tom Hanks.  They'd reunited for FORREST GUMP in which she'd play his devoted mother, a Southern woman.

On my VH1 show, she told me that PLACES IN THE HEART co-star John Malkovich owns a copy of her album, "The Flying Nun Sings."

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