By Elizabeth Sporkin
Updated July 08, 1991 12:00 PM

WHILE OTHER PEOPLE HAVE MIDLIFE crises and revert to adolescence, Sally Field is happy not only to act her age, but also to ridicule her character’s fear of aging in the summer soap-opera spoof, Soapdish. Playing almost-over-the-hill TV queen Celeste Talbert, Field delivers one zinger after another. “I look like Gloria f—-ing Swanson!” Celeste shrieks when the costumer puts her in a turban. “I’m 42 years old! I don’t want to be dressed like a dead woman!”

Field, who at 44 is two years farther than that down the slippery slope of middle age, is comfortable being the butt of jabs equating aging with career obsolescence—and with good reason. Still girlish-looking, she hasn’t yet started drooping in all the wrong places. And to ensure professional longevity, she has carved out a spot for herself as one of Hollywood’s most powerful women. One of her lesser-known offscreen roles this summer: coproducer of the Julia Roberts tearjerker Dying Young.

Her self-esteem, shaky through most of her youth, has only firmed up with maturity. “I never thought I’d be 44,” she says. “When I was 24, 44 seemed like 104! But my strengths now come from experience. I feel like I’ve come into my own.”

Field now commands at least a few million per picture, but getting to the top of the heap—and staying there—left some scars. In 1967, while living with the pressure of being TV’s Flying Nun, Field privately fought an obsession with food and weight. The bubbly little girl who was the very embodiment of American apple-pie cuteness as TV’s irrepressible Gidget was in fact filled with self-loathing about her body image. “There is a time in adolescence when women naturally gain weight,” she say’s. “You wake up one morning 20 pounds heavier. Everybody then was Twiggy, except me. I felt immensely unattractive.”

When she was 20, a family doctor prescribed diet pills and diuretics, and Field says she began a three-year cycle of pill popping, starving, then stuffing herself, “I would lose 10 or 15 pounds in a week, eating nothing but cucumbers and working all day,” she recalls. “My hands would shake all the time, and sometimes I’d pass out. But then I would goon these enormous binges. I lived alone and was very lonely. I made myself spaghetti dinners and chocolate cake and ate the whole thing, then tried to throw up because I was in such pain. But I couldn’t. My body would be so swollen the next day that it would hurt to touch, and my eyes would be little slits.”

She began to conquer her problem, she says, when she became pregnant with sons Peter, now 21, and Eli, 19, during her five-year first marriage to Steve Craig, her boyfriend from her days at Birmingham High School in California’s San Fernando Valley. “Being pregnant forced my body to ask me to eat the right things,” says Field. “Having children—the running around—helped my metabolism.” Yet, though she has relied on the same therapist since she was 18, Field says that she didn’t stop turning to food in times of stress until she fell in love with Alan Greisman, 44, whom she married in 1984. “When Alan and I got together, it resolved itself,” she says. “I don’t know why.”

But Field isn’t one to dwell in the past. “Onward and upward,” she is saying to Sam, the couple’s 3½-year-old son, as she towels him off after a swimming lesson at the family’s house on a quiet cul-de-sac in L.A.’s tony Brentwood section. In the background, a construction crew is hammering away, completely renovating the 7,000-square-foot home, while Field, Greisman and Sam have temporarily moved to a Spanish-style rental house two miles away. “We decided to redo the kitchen last November.” Field says sheepishly. “bill I got carried away.”

But then, doesn’t she always? Field still can’t live down her famous “You like me!” Oscar acceptance speech for 1984’s Places in the Heart, though she now is willing to play it for laughs. “We almost had her saying ‘You like me’ in Soap-dish,” when Celeste accepts an award, says Greisman, who coproduced the film. “But Sally said that it takes you out of the movie and reminds you of who she is in person.”

In person, of course, she is one of America’s best-loved actresses, a distinction that Field attributes to the public’s impression that she is “like one of them.” Even her hobbies—needlepoint and gardening—are heartland favorites. “It seems to me, in the words of my friend Shirley MacLaine, that this is my path,” Field says. “I’m not going to be knighted, like Meryl Streep. My real assets have always been acting and just being pleasant.”

In Field’s case, being America’s sweetheart may have saved Soapdish from a dreaded R rating. Under MPAA interpretation, two utterances of the F word could spell R. In addition to Field’s Gloria Swanson outburst, Robert Downey Jr. uses the celebrated Anglo-Saxonism in the movie, yet remarkably the film sailed through the censors with a PG-13. “I guess when Sally Held says f—-, it doesn’t count,” says studio executive Gary Lucchesi.

But when Sally Field says march—or don’t march—people listen. Says Kevin McCormick, the partner in her company, Fogwood Films, which produced Dying Young: “If there’s a principle of justice involved, she jumps on the table with the strike sign.”

Not that Field ever had designs on emulating Norma Rae, the rough-and-ready textile-mill labor organizer she played in the 1979 film. “Sally became a producer out of self-defense,” says Laura Ziskin, who coproduced 1985’s Murphy’s Romance with Field. “There just aren’t great roles for women. Here was someone with a tremendous talent who said, ‘I’m going to have to take control of my life and develop my own material.’ ” Field hasn’t jumped on an equal-pay bandwagon though. When Streep complained last year in the Los Angeles Times that Jack Nicholson earned more money for his films because he was a man, Field didn’t offer sympathy. “We should fight for working mothers who are really strapped,” she said, “before we fight for whether Meryl Streep makes as much as Jack Nicholson.”

Field used to shy away from female friends, but actresses such as Goldie Hawn and Kate Capshaw have become warm pals. And some young actresses see her as a role model. One recipient of Field’s advice on dealing with celebrity has been Roberts, 23, her Steel Magnolias cast mate. “I told her that the only way you learn is by making mistakes,” she says.

Field herself learned the hard way after breaking into television on Gidget at 18. There was the memorable Flying Nun, which she has called “a walking joke,” and a series of all-too-forgettable TV roles before she won her first Emmy for 1976’s Sybil, based on the true story of a woman with 16 personalities. By the time she followed it up with her two Best Actress Oscars, she had not only been through a much-publicized five-year romance with Burt Reynolds but had filled up her dance card with names including Johnny Carson and Soapdish costar Kevin Kline.

Time has healed any lingering wounds from her breakup with Reynolds. While razzing many of his former costars (such as Kathleen Turner and Dolly Parton) in his recent one-man road show, he called Field “the best actress I’ve ever worked with.” She says Reynolds freed her from prudishness: “I was raised in the ’50s, and I was such a product of my time that sexuality was something frightening to me. Burt was this very vigorous, attractive man, and he helped a lot in just liking me and being attracted to me. It helped in shaking myself loose.”

She wasn’t ready to be caught again until she met Greisman in the spring of 1984, when he came to her pitching film ideas and ended up pitching woo. The couple married that December. Field credits the laid-back Greisman with erasing her insecurities about men, which began when she was 4 and her drugstore-owner father, Richard, and actress-mother, Margaret (a Paramount contract player), divorced. Although Margaret Field was later remarried to Jock Mahoney, a sometime movie Tarzan who helped raise Sally, an elder brother and younger sister, Field remained cautious in her own relationships until now. “Alan’s a worker emotionally,” she says.

If she’s more devoted as a wife, she is also more self-assured as a mother the third time around. “I used to feel guilty about my kids just because I wasn’t Betty Crocker,” says Field. “But then Peter and Eli grew up, and—they’re fine. They’re better than fine, they’re stupendous.” Peter, who will graduate from Syracuse University this summer, enters the master’s writing program at the University of Iowa this fall; Eli will be a sophomore at the University of Colorado. “I realize how fast childhood goes, so I think I cherish Sam’s that much more.” Although from afar the 5’2″ Field could pass for a child herself (Soapdish costume designer Nolan Miller fit her wardrobe on a 12-year-old stand-in), she is aware of the visible signs of midlife. “I try to ignore aging because there’s nothing I can do,” she says. Well, maybe one thing. “I haven’t done it yet, but I’m gonna definitely do it,” she says, rubbing her jawline with her hands. “I think, well, what can you do here? I think it’s great to do plastic surgery.”

But first there are projects to develop and decisions to make. At her flower-filled production office in Brentwood, she is talking about a new script. “There are four elderly sisters with a murderous secret,” she explains. “The house is crumbling around them, and there’s a flood….It’s for an older actress.” She laughs. “We’ll keep it for later,” she says.