Scot Haller
October 17, 1988 12:00 PM

Like a Sally Field movie scene, the domestic moment was brushed with a surprising touch of melancholy. Early one morning last year in the second-floor bedroom of her Brentwood home, the actress was getting ready to report for work on a movie that was more taxing for her than most. Sally was co-starring with the superhot Tom Hanks in Punchline, a quixotic drama about stand-up comics, and she was also co-producing the film.

So, naturally, the Fates threw a plot twist into Field’s life. After she checked the results of the home pregnancy kit, she woke up her husband, producer Alan Greisman, 41, with the news that he was going to be a father for the first time. “Alan was so excited, he was jumping up and down and carrying on,” recalls Sally, but the actress had a more dramatic reaction.

Already the mother of two teenage boys from her first marriage, “I knew what was in store,” she says. “And I sat down on the floor and started to cry. I thought, oh my God, what have I done? We had wanted to have a baby, but wanting to and knowing you are [going to] are two different things. I was crying because, honestly, there was a part of me that said I don’t know if I want to love anything again as much as you love a child.”

As it happens in a Sally Field script, ambivalence breeds accomplishment. Last December, Field gave birth to Sammy, a spanking 6 lb., 7 oz. boy. And now the just-opened Punchline has accorded her a respect far different from the accolades of 1984’s Places in the Heart, which brought her a second Academy Award. Although Field stars as Lilah Krytsick, a New Jersey hausfrau who wants to trade her kitchen sink for nightclub shtik, Punchline is not entirely a laughing matter. Instead, this quirky and sometimes difficult drama tours the particular circle of hell that is the cellar world of fledgling comics.

And while Punchline has drawn a wide range of reviews—the New York Times dismissed it, the Los Angeles Times found it “bold, sneaky, brilliant”—Field has been praised for shepherding the unconventional movie and yielding the camera to co-star Hanks, who has won some of his best reviews to date for his poisonous portrait of the artist as a young man and stand-up maniac. Says Hanks: “Sally has the right to be regal and demanding and unapproachable, but she’s not. That’s refreshing.” Adds Mark Rydell, who plays the movie’s corrosive club owner, “She’s the workhorse of the picture, and Hanks winds up with a lot of the glory. That would scare a lot of actresses, but not Sally.”

For a woman who once labeled herself “the perpetual Bambi,” becoming both a high-pressure producer and a mid-life new mom has required improvisation. “I’m trying to figure out who I am these days,” says Field, 41. “I can’t tell if I’m old or young or in between—or if I care. I didn’t feel 40 when I had my birthday last year, but after I had Sam, I felt 50. I’m not old, but I’m not young, so that must make me middle. And I can’t stand the word middle-aged because when I was growing up, my parents were middle-aged, and they were old.”

Equivocation is part of the fine art of being Sally Field. Like many a household hyphenate, she skitters between professional and personal responsibilities. As shooting continued on Punchline through the spring of 1987, Field tried to hide her delicate condition from her colleagues. “I didn’t want them to be saving me from anything.” But she didn’t fool director David Seltzer. “I’ve got four children, and I think I spotted it before her doctor,” he says. “Her coloring changed, her energy changed. I was in her dressing room and interrupted a conversation we were having. I asked, ‘Are you pregnant?’ She said, ‘You’re not supposed to know.’ ” Morning sickness is, after all, a production-schedule spoiler. “When some of my women friends on the set were slipping me crackers and I was green behind the ears,” Sally says now, “everyone else finally started to put it together.”

Putting together Punchline was taking a toll of its own. “The work in front of the camera wasn’t especially demanding on me,” says Field. “The work behind the camera was.” For instance, she and Seltzer disagreed about the content of Lilah’s act and how much of her material to include in the final cut. Says Seltzer: “Sally has a high degree of opinion and certainty about things. She ain’t the flying nun.”

As producer, Field says, “I’ve had to be a lot tougher. Part of me would just like to say, ‘Never mind. I’ll go home and sob. I don’t want to do this.’ I like it better when I can blame someone else. One night Goldie Hawn [who also produces films] and I were having dinner, and we were both saying to each other, ‘I didn’t think I ever wanted to work this hard.’ ”

At times during Punchline‘s post-production work, she couldn’t. In her seventh month of pregnancy, Field’s doctor decided she was dilating too early and ordered her to bed for five weeks. “I knew everything that was happening any time of the day on television,” she says. Between soaps, she reviewed videocassettes of each new Punchline edit and offered suggestions. “It was so nerve-racking, I’d be going nuts.” And growing ever more fearful. “I was scared that something would go wrong with Sam,” says Field. “I was so worried about him. Everybody said it was not that big a deal, but tell that to a pregnant woman. I was trying to do business on the phone, and I would cry at the drop of a hat.”

Two weeks before the baby was due, the doctor let her get out of bed. Three days later, Sam was born. Within a few weeks Field was recording some of her dialogue while breast-feeding the baby in the editing room. But even work couldn’t cure her postpartum blues. “I mean, my breast-feeding was not going along the way it used to,” says Sally. “When I was 22, it was a whiz. It wasn’t a whiz anymore. I was totally depressed.”

Nowadays, depression turns out to be something she just doesn’t have time for. On a recent afternoon chez Field (where a live-in nanny helps out), Sally ricochets between baby talk and business talk. She has brussels sprouts on the kitchen stove for the baby, 10-month-old Sam in her arms, Alan in her way and her mother in the next room. Says Sally as she pops a brussels sprout into her mouth instead of the baby’s, “The freezer went on the fritz the other day, and there was water all over this floor. Somebody came to see me from a newspaper, and my jeans were all wet, and everything was a mess. I said, ‘Please don’t write that I was on the floor defrosting my freezer. Please write that I was on the phone wheeling and dealing.’ ”

In a hotel suite, Tom Hanks and Sally Field are having their photos taken together. As Hanks poses with Field, he kids her as only an affable co-star could. He calls her “my pal Sal.” Slipping his arms around her for a shot, he says, “You’re so cuddly. All this time we worked together, I never knew you were so cuddly. We never got to do anything like this in the movie.”

“There was a kiss, Tom,” she says. “Did you forget?”

He draws her closer and smiles for the camera. “I feel like John Davidson in The Girl with Something Extra,” he says with a laugh. “Don’t even get me started on some of Sally’s TV shows.”

Don’t get Sally started, either. Her oft-charted career began when the San Fernando Valley schoolgirl was selected at 18 to play Gidget in the 1965 TV series. “I loved every minute of it,” she says. “It was so close to my own life.” But her next TV series, The Flying Nun, has been an albatross for her ever since. While married to childhood sweetheart Steve Craig, she became pregnant with her first child, Peter, now 18 and a sophomore at Syracuse University. (Her second son, Eli, 16, is a student in L.A.) “It’s supposed to be this idyllic time in your life, and I’m in this nun’s habit and pregnant,” says Field, who terminated her dead-end marriage in 1973. “As if I weren’t a walking joke to begin with. You can’t ignore a thing like a pregnant nun. It was major humiliation.”

Consequently, it was a major victory when she received an Emmy Award for her 1976 portrait of a schizophrenic young woman in the TV miniseries Sybil. By then she’d already revamped her image with an on-and offscreen relationship with Burt Reynolds.

Most actresses earn their professional reputations before their stardom. Field earned her professional reputation despite her stardom. With the drama Places in the Heart, she demonstrated that her 1980 Oscar for Norma Rae was no fluke. But to some observers, only Sally Field could turn winning a second Academy Award into a dubious achievement. As she accepted her Best Actress Oscar, Field provided the sort of naked-in-public moment that shrink sessions are made of. As her tears flowed, she told the stunned crowd and a worldwide TV audience, “I can’t deny the fact that you like me right now, you like me!” Even onetime boyfriend Johnny Carson ridiculed her speech in his monologue.

Now Field brings up her Oscar speech before you can even ask. “You were about to do it anyway, weren’t you?” she says. “I don’t know what to feel about that moment. Some days I honestly feel that I’m glad I’m not so totally colorless and safe and contained that I’ve not left any impression on anyone whatsoever, that I never do anything to be noticed, even if it’s noticed in a not always favorable way. Sometimes it bothers me and sometimes it doesn’t. I’ve had so many things in my life that have bothered me, and I’ve gotten over them.”

After that night in March 1985, she returned to the Arizona set of Murphy’s Romance, the first film she produced, unaware that she was once again a public punchline. “I was lucky. I didn’t even know until way later that it had become a thing.” But it had. On the set of her current project, Steel Magnolias, Field finished a scene and asked director Herbert Ross what he thought. In unison, the crew replied, “We liked it. We really liked it.”

But if you think her Oscar speech precipitated another round of Please Take Sally Seriously, think again. “That drives me crazy. I don’t think there will ever be another cycle of that,” she says. “In my industry, I’m honestly taken seriously, for God’s sake. I’m one of the five best actresses in this country. I really am. I mean in my age group. I’m as accomplished as a person can get, and I say that with great pride in myself. Who doesn’t take me seriously? It’s just crap. I’ve won two Oscars. There isn’t anyone else in my age group who has. Even Meryl [Streep]. She’s won two Oscars but not both for Best Actress. If I had come from the East and had a theatrical background, nobody would be talking about this, even if I got up at the Oscars and said, ‘You like me, you like me!’ I think I can get up there and say, ‘You like me, you like me!’ as many times as I want. I’ve earned that right.” She pauses. “Do I sound irate?” she asks.

If motherhood is supposed to mellow a woman, someone forgot to tell Field. At home her obligation overload is showing. When she was pregnant, her friend Goldie Hawn, who’d recently had a son, assured her that motherhood was less stressful at 40. But, says Sally, “I think it’s just as tough as it ever was. When I had Peter and Eli, I was struggling to have things going on in my life. In my appointment book, I’d have one thing to do for the whole week, and I’d plan the week around that one thing. Now I have more things to do, and I don’t want to trade off anything.”

She’s just made her first film since having Sam—an adaptation of the off-Broadway hit Steel Magnolias with Dolly Parton, Shirley MacLaine, Olympia Dukakis and Daryl Hannah. When Field shows a photo of the all-star cast, Sam is in the picture too. “This is the story of that movie as far as I’m concerned,” says Sally, “me with Sam on my hip.”

As expected, having a baby has affected her marriage. “It eliminates the silly squabbles and power struggles,” says Field. “You quit arguing about what color the wallpaper should be.” She met Greisman five years ago, when he brought her an idea for a movie. Although she had turned down Reynolds’ marriage offers years before, when Greisman’s script proposal turned into a dinner proposal, she suddenly found a compatible companion. “I wanted to get married again,” she says. “It’s a state I prefer being in, but I don’t know that I really thought it would happen. I had some image of myself just being alone.”

Now it’s her screen image that troubles her. Even though no longer haunted by the ghost of Gidget, Field feels more and more a prisoner of her “Saint Sally” roles. In Punchline, Lilah nobly forfeits her big break for the Hanks character. In Steel Magnolias, Field is a small-town mother who sacrifices a kidney for her daughter. “Believe me, I’m just as sick of my ‘good people’ as audiences must be,” says Field. “I’d love to play a bitch or some women you don’t really end up liking a whole lot. But they are very hard to find, although not necessarily in real life.”

These days, she just wants to be bad—and not just onscreen. “It bothers me that there is an image of me being so—not even good, more like goody-goody. Nauseatingly good. And I look at how I have perpetuated that myself. Part of it gets down to the fact that I do care what people think about me, and there are some people who don’t. Why can’t I just tell people to blank themselves. I’d like to be like Cher. I admire someone who says, ‘Get out of my way,’ instead of ‘Pardon me, would you mind moving out of the way, and if you don’t want to, I’ll go around.’ It must come down to being the little girl who grew up in the Valley in 1964, where it was drilled in that you have to be nice and sweet and cute and reasonable—all of those Girl Scout things that were embroidered into your hat. I’ve lived with them forever after.”

Tonight is a testament to the worth of such values. Tonight she’s out on the town for the premiere of Punchline. Tonight Sally is being the good mother, the good wife, the good sport. At a center table of the huge party, she accepts compliments from the industry crowd as her husband sits on one side of her, son Eli on the other. John Lithgow comes over, Sydney Pollack stops by. Without the attending enthusiasts marking the spot, you would never notice Sally Field in this crowd.

In the last week, she had finished Steel Magnolias, gone to Toronto with Sam in tow and made a New York trip to promote Punchline. “I’m just very tired,” she says. Even as she pleads exhaustion, Sally is still smiling. “There’s no question about it,” says the woman who has weathered Gidget, single motherhood and marriage the second time around. “I’m a product of my time.”

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