Sally Field knits her brow into those famous migraine furrows, 66 years deep, trying to decide whether to judge a book by its cover. Through tortoiseshell bifocals, she studies a $50 copy of Dante’s Divine Comedy with an unremarkable cover but vivid Gustave Doré illustrations inside. A salesman here at Argosy Books, the midtown mecca of rare editions, is trying to up-sell the two-time Academy Award winner. He doesn’t recognize the intermittent leading lady, the long-ago Gidget and flying nun, and the co-star, with Daniel Day-Lewis, of Steven Spielberg’s new biopic Lincoln. She plays First Lady Mary Todd Lincoln—famously sharp, obstinate, and batty.
“It’s pretty, but it’s not antique,” the salesman says of the Dante book. She asks what else he has of The Divine Comedy or another bucket-list read, Don Quixote. He shows her a four-volume set of the latter that blooms in scaly, multicolored paisley—H. G. Wells meets Willy Wonka—and retails for $3,000. “Oh my God, oh, it’s beautiful,” she says. “The problem is that I would need to read it, too.”
Field is on a course of self-improvement. “I’m looking for a bunch of new tchotchkes that represent the new part of my life,” she says—specifically in a post-empty-nest West Village apartment that she recently bought. After her mother died and her youngest son made his home in New York, the L.A. lifer decided to fulfill an old dream and go bicoastal. She’s also looking to make up for an education cut short when she became America’s favorite surfer chick at the too-tender age of 18. “I’m starting on Chapter One, Page One of Part Three, of my life,” she says brightly.
But life doesn’t always cooperate, as Field will readily tell you. Instead of hunting bargains within dragging distance of her downtown two-bedroom, she’s holed up in a midtown hotel in the wake of Sandy’s devastation. Every day she heads down to the dead zone to check on her apartment, climbing fourteen flights of stairs despite the osteoporosis that led to one of her recent gigs, an ad for Boniva. Sandy has even followed us here, to 59th Street. Bricks rained down from a high-rise next door onto the ancient roof of Argosy’s townhouse; rainwater rushed in and destroyed autographs on the sixth floor.
Four stories below that, hundreds of Abraham Lincoln engravings are blessedly unscathed. On the antique elevator leading us there, the operator is the only store employee to recognize Field. He asks bashfully for her autograph, and she gladly obliges. Which role does he like her in? “It’s got to be Mrs. Doubtfire,” he says of her role as the cross-dresser’s wife.
For the actress whose obituary may well start with her second Oscar acceptance speech, in which she supposedly squealed, “You really like me!” (Actually, she said, “You like me. Right now, you like me!”), there seems to be a regret for every triumph. Whether her Mary Todd changes that sense of stutter-step progress, the real struggle—and the real triumph—was landing the part at all.
Brought up by journeymen actors, Field rushed into an early marriage and one silly sitcom after another. At five-foot-two and 100 pounds, she was too cute to be sexy—“sweet but unremarkable,” per one profile—and tainted by TV. Then she lobbied for the starring role in Sybil, a mini-series about a woman with multiple personalities, seeing it as an escape route to film. It worked, and over the next decade, starring roles in Norma Rae and Places in the Heart—emotional films with political overtones—earned her two Oscars for Best Actress.
The industry may have really liked her right then, but its affection was fleeting and its offers sparse. “I was always waiting,” Field says now. “After award No. 1, just waiting. After award No. 2—never. Never, never, never. My career has always been really hard.” She took roles “because they were the only things offered that were worth reading.” In the aughts, she went back to television as the matriarch in Brothers & Sisters. “The network was just constantly watering down, trivializing, not wanting to offend. As an actor, there’s nothing to play!”
But the role of Mary Todd was more than just a second Sybil, or the opening page of Chapter Three. Despite having been Lincoln’s first political impresario, Mary was often dismissed in biographies as a mentally unstable shrew. And yet she managed to turn the epithet First Lady into the kind of title that might one day launch a president. (Field campaigned for Hillary Clinton in 2008.)
Field began pining for the role before Doris Kearns Goodwin had even finished writing Team of Rivals, the political-history book on which Lincoln is based. After acquiring the option in 2001, Spielberg promised to consider her. Years later, as it began coming together, a table read with Liam Neeson went well, but then Neeson dropped out. “Shortly after that,” she says, “I heard Daniel Day-Lewis came onboard, and I went, ‘Uh-oh.’ ”
By then, she was fifteen years older than Mary had been in 1865 and ten years older than Day-Lewis (Mary was ten years younger than Lincoln). She also worried that her “baggage” might disqualify her from an A-list role. “I’ve been here a long time,” she says. “I’ve done some good work and some not-good work.” Spielberg called and told her he couldn’t give her the part. “He said, ‘We’re not wearing prosthetics. The lighting will be harsh.’ I said, ‘I don’t care what I look like as long as I look like Mary Todd. And I will look like Mary Todd!’ ”
Spielberg agreed to a screen test, then rejected her anyway. After further pleading, he ran her test by Day-Lewis, who was in Ireland and deep into his notoriously immersive process—studying letters and staring at portraits. To Spielberg and Field’s surprise, Day-Lewis agreed to meet her for a final audition. She “went off to become Mary again.” Like Day-Lewis, she was also steeped in technique; seeking solace from sitcom hell in the seventies, she’d studied with Method pioneer Lee Strasberg.
When the day arrived, she was led to a seat in the studio lobby. “I heard commotion,” she remembers, “and looked up, and across the lobby came my darling Mr. Lincoln. He smirked at me, and I smirked right back. I gave him my hand, I looked up and said ‘Mr. Lincoln,’ and he said ‘Mother.’ That’s what they said to each other. I felt this audible hush in the room.” For the next hour or so, they improvised as the First Couple. She got the role.
Throughout the shoot, Spielberg apologized for what he’d put her through. She remembers answering, “ ‘It needed to be done, both for you to know who Mary was and for me to have to reach down and pull her out screaming and yelling.’ Because I’m not that bold, I’m not that tenacious. I certainly hadn’t been feeling that way for the last fifteen years of my life.”
Today, Spielberg calls her “a remarkable actress” who “shares some of Mary Todd’s feistiness, but all similarities end there.” He came around to her “because of what a deeply intuitive actress she is. I felt she would find Mary in her own way, in her own time, and in the privacy of her own process.”
Following that first Method mind-meld, Field not only read the letters and stared at the portraits; she gained 25 pounds, a quarter of her weight, gulping ProGain twice daily until her waistline matched Mary’s and her knees required surgery. Troubled women make up half of Field’s résumé, but Mary’s utter rawness felt new. “Everything she ever felt, she showed on her face all the time,” Field says. During the Virginia shoot, she took Mary back with her to her hotel room. “You go home and just sob and cry and sob and cry, and you don’t even know why you’re sobbing and crying.”
If all this Method talk sounds a little me-too, at least it dovetails with Mary Todd Lincoln’s own indignation at being overshadowed by intense men. Tony Kushner’s script for Lincoln employs Mary as a sort of anti–Lady Macbeth—a Realpolitiker in the service of good. Kushner has her say to Abe: “All anyone will remember about me was that I was crazy and ruined your happiness.”
Up on Argosy’s second floor, a saleswoman rifles through the myriad subcategories of Lincoln portraits: “Bearded standing; bearded facing forward; beardless; bearded sitting; bearded looking right.” But Sally Field isn’t here to look at Abe, and she grows irritated on poor Mary’s behalf. “They paid so much attention to him,” Field stage-whispers. “Didn’t they realize that his real worth was standing right beside him, just much shorter? Mary’s what I want, for God’s sake!”
Mary isn’t listed separately. “It would have to be ‘Family,’ ” suggests the saleswoman. “Family’s good,” says Field. “We like family.” Poring over the engravings, the actress transforms: The eager freshman reading Dante gives way to the expert historian, ferreting out chronological inaccuracies. An image of Mary in mourning evokes another raw anecdote. As Lincoln lay dying, “they didn’t even let her in the room,” she says. Granted, Mary was hysterically “crying and wailing.” But she had no idea, until she finally fought her way in, how bad it was. “She looked up and said, ‘Why didn’t you tell me he was dying?’ ” The saleswoman shudders dramatically, and Field continues. “It was part of tradition that a woman would sit with her dying loved one. But they didn’t like her. They took him over. He belonged to the Cabinet; he belonged to the country. And they pushed her out.”
Lincoln isn’t about Mary. It’s about the passage of the Thirteenth Amendment. But while on standby during the climactic scene on the floor of Congress—there are a couple of cutaway shots to Mary in the balcony—Field insisted on being in the room all day, quietly knitting and watching mock history unfold.
“You can’t help but feel all the human-rights issues,” Field says now, four days before the reelection of America’s first black president. “Certainly, gay rights is one of them.” She recently spoke at a Human Rights Campaign gala in support of marriage equality, partly on behalf of her son, who is gay. “But women, that’s still to come,” she adds, “all over the world!”
She likes President Obama but is still enamored of that other former First Lady, Hillary Clinton: “I worry about how hard she’s working. I want her to look at where she’s going next. She’s going into Chapter One, Page One of Part Three, of her book, too.” While paying for her Argosy purchases, Field asks the woman at the counter about a framed vintage poster propped up beside her. It reads WOMEN BRING ALL VOTERS INTO THE WORLD. LET WOMEN VOTE. It turns out that Clinton herself bought one exactly like it when she visited the store. It costs $100. Field decides to buy it. She also decides on the $50 Divine Comedy, the one with the modest cover and the beautifully tortured engravings inside.
*This article originally appeared in the November 19, 2012 issue of New York Magazine.