At 70, Sally Field Gets Her Dream Role

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Really, what else is there to talk about? This blustery winter evening, as Sally Field arrives at a quiet restaurant in Greenwich Village, thousands of Yemeni bodega owners are gathered on the steps of Brooklyn’s Borough Hall to protest President Trump’s immigration order. Field turned 70 two days before the election and spoke at two protests on Inauguration Eve, and she’s feeling weird not being out there with them. “Not just weird, but is it wrong?” she wonders. She sheds a black coat, black backpack, and black velour scarf to reveal a mood-appropriate all-black outfit, and locks eyes with the waiter: “I’d like a glass of Chardonnay — ASAP.”

The need for wine isn’t just Trump-related. Since January 2, the acting legend has been rehearsing six days a week for one of the most demanding roles in American theater: strident, big-dreaming matriarch Amanda Wingfield in Tennessee Williams’s The Glass Menagerie, which will be, astoundingly, only her second time on Broadway. (Her first was replacing Mercedes Ruehl in Edward Albee’s The Goat, or Who Is Sylvia? in 2002.) Her call time is usually around noon. “But Sally, I think, is rehearsing 24 hours a day,” says her director, Sam Gold (of Fun Home). “She comes in having already done the play three times in her living room.”

One luxuriously sipped glass of Chardonnay is her “end-of-the-day ritual,” along with watching Rachel Maddow, Lawrence O’Donnell, and Turner Classic Movies, to stop her Glass dialogue from running through her head. Is it also her coping mechanism for the new world order? “Oh, boy, I hope we don’t all become alcoholics!” she says. “No, I think we have to do a lot more than that to get through it. A glass of wine in the evening is not gonna cut it.”

Rehearsing kept her from protesting the travel ban at JFK, though she takes solace in the notion that under this administration, performing the work of a canonized gay playwright in the most LGBTQ-celebratory swath of America is itself an act of resistance. “I do think, in a Pollyanna way, to be here on Broadway, doing Tennessee Williams’s words — with who he was and what he stands for — this is a good place for me to be right now,” says Field.

Field wasn’t always this progressive. She grew up in a Republican family in Pasadena, with a Hollywood-stuntman stepfather who campaigned for Barry Goldwater’s 1964 presidential campaign. And being a hippie passed her by while she was charming the masses on TV sitcoms starting at age 18, as a surfer girl on Gidget and the titular airborne sister on The Flying Nun, and then becoming a young mother. “I just watched,” she says. “It was like being down the hallway listening and not being in the room.”

Field has three sons, screenwriters Peter and Eli Craig, 47 and 44, and Columbia screenwriting grad student Sam Greisman, 29, plus two teenage granddaughters and three younger grandsons. Sam is gay. “I have a child who’s deeply threatened and frightened by all this. My other sons are frightened for their children,” she says. “And the people who voted for Trump aren’t? I just don’t understand! What are you seeing and thinking?

It wasn’t until her 30s that she had a political awakening upon winning her first Oscar for playing a union activist in 1979’s Norma Rae and befriending director Martin Ritt, a champion of socially conscious stories who’d once been blackballed for alleged communist ties. She’ll probably always be better remembered, however, for the infamous “You like me!” 1985 Best Actress speech she made for Places in the Heart. How does she feel about being so linked to that one extemporaneous moment? “First of all, I was winning my second Oscar, so I’m allowed to say anything I fucking want,” says Field, laughing.

Now she needs a cheeseburger and fries in addition to that Chardonnay. “I can’t believe I’m having a cheeseburger. I’ve, like, never had a cheeseburger, ever!” Really? “No, just not in a long time. I’m just so hungry and I’m dying!”

Five years ago, Field bought a two-bedroom in the Village — fulfilling her lifelong dream of being bicoastal — and has been tearing through restaurants and theater and museum shows with a zeal usually reserved for NYU freshmen. (Case in point: She tells me that after the opening, she and her Glass cast vowed to “get shitfaced” every night.) Spending her 70s onstage in New York was on Field’s bucket list, too. “She’s always said this was the time in her life when she wanted to do it, when her children were grown and she was able to pick up and really commit,” says her good friend Tricia Brock, a TV director. Plus, Brock adds, “the stage is where the roles are for older women, where it’s possible and they are admired.” Glenn Close and Bette Midler will both be on Broadway at the same time as Field, who’s already had a fun dinner with Midler. “I’m where I want to be right now, and I’m very excited,” says Field, “though I’m too old to feel this brand-new at something.”

Amanda is Field’s first meaty role since she played an eccentric office worker with a crush on a much younger colleague (Max Greenfield) in 2016’s delightful movie Hello, My Name Is Doris and her Oscar-nominated turn opposite Daniel Day-Lewis in Steven Spielberg’s Lincoln three years before that. She’d had to fight to play Mary Todd Lincoln, given that she was nearly two decades older than her character by the time the opportunity came about. Doris, likewise, was passion-driven — a shoestring indie, released to little fanfare, that made its budget back 14 times over, in a year when many movies starring a woman over 65 (Maggie Smith’s Lady in the Van, Helen Mirren’s Woman in Gold, Judi Dench’s The Second Best Exotic Marigold Hotel, Meryl Streep’s Ricki and the Flash) defied box-office expectations.

If a renaissance of older actresses in Hollywood was supposed to come from that, it never did, and Field sounds disillusioned with a film industry that only seems to care about comic-book stories. “I just feel like American film is folding in on itself like a house of cards, going boom, boom, boom,” she says. Even this year’s more diverse Oscars are frustrating because they represent just a handful of movies that got good reviews and backing and feel to her like they were all released in one week at the end of the year. “I got irritated, like, ‘Wait a minute, why don’t they spread them throughout the year, and why aren’t there more of them?’ ”

Throughout all of this, Amanda has loomed large for her. Field sampled the coveted part once before to rave reviews in 2004 as part of a Tennessee Williams festival at the Kennedy Center in D.C., but never felt like she got her fix. (Already, this revival’s rehearsal period is four times longer than that production’s entire run. And Field is signed on until at least July 2.) Back then, Field had her hopes of carrying on with Amanda dashed by a Jessica Lange version that was headed to Broadway. “And then Cherry Jones, bless her heart, came in,” says Field about the 2013 production that got seven Tony nominations, “and I thought, Oh, I’ll never do that.

So deep was her longing to play Amanda that when Brock once told her she was going to see Glass somewhere, Field blurted out, “No! It’s mine!” “She’s just always talked about it as the role of roles,” says Brock — Lear for aging actresses, if you will. And when Field and I meet, it’s clear she’s read multiple Tennessee Williams biographies. She tells me how he’d written the play both for and about his domineering mother, Edwina, and the power she had over him, as well as his sister Rose, who’d had a lobotomy just before his career took off and whose loss he never got over — or forgave his mother for. “There aren’t a lot of really quintessentially complicated, powerful characters in American literature for older women,” Field says. “It isn’t a sentimental look at a mother. She’s so filled with contradictions and complications, as human beings are. There are very few women written that way in literature. They don’t exist.”

So for 13 years, her producer friend Scott Rudin brought her other juicy theater roles, only to have her turn them down. “I’d just always been saying, ‘All that is great, but I keep comparing it to how much I want to do Glass,’ ” says Field. “That was the problem. I couldn’t get over my hurdle of wanting to do it again. I felt like I hadn’t really gotten to do it.” And what would that feel like? “This,” she says. “It’s just a difference in the duration, the production, and everything about it.”

She caught a break when Gold fell in love with the play after directing a 2015 production in Dutch in Amsterdam and decided he had a new take that could justify reviving it just three years after its last blockbuster revival. As Field explains, Glass was Williams’s first successful play, and even contemporary productions are based on how it was performed back then, as a new form of theater known as a “memory play,” created by this unknown upstart. “None of the actors knew how to wrap their brains around it, and because Tennessee was new, they didn’t trust him,” says Field. “So they ad-libbed things and changed his original intent.”

Field in The Glass Menagerie. Photo: Copyright 2017 Julieta Cervantes

The result has been a long history of Amanda interpreted as an overbearing hysteric, harping on her (probably closeted) son, Tom, about the factory job he hates and her disabled daughter, Laura, about an ideal of marriage that may never happen. With Field, Gold says, “I want to redefine Amanda,” inviting empathy for her circumstances as a single mother in the Depression, living in a tenement you have to climb a fire escape to enter, while raising two children, one of whom not only has a physical impairment but also debilitating social anxiety. “Amanda can be a character you associate with being out of touch and living in a fantasy,” says Gold, “and that was never going to happen with Sally. She grounds it in her instinct of what it’s like to be a mother struggling for the success of her kids.” Adding another layer is Gold’s casting of only the second performer on Broadway to use a wheelchair, newcomer Madison Ferris, as Laura (alongside Joe Mantello as Tom and Finn Wittrock as the gentleman caller) — her disability and the way it ties the family down and to one another made real.

Reading through the play now, it seems eerily on the nose. It’s set in 1937, when, according to Tennessee stand-in Tom, narrating his past, “the huge middle class of America was matriculating in a school for the blind. Their eyes had failed them, or they had failed their eyes, and so they were having their fingers pressed forcibly down on the fiery Braille alphabet of a dissolving economy.” He also uses the phrase “all the world was waiting for bombardments,” describing revelers at the dance hall across the street making out behind ash bins, oblivious to what was about to descend on them. Franco’s Spain was in the midst of its civil war; Hitler was about to acquire Austria; violent labor movements were disrupting Chicago, Cleveland, and St. Louis; and Amanda, “a little woman of great but confused vitality clinging frantically to another time and place,” was busy creating a world of alternative facts in her own home, wherein she disallowed anyone from using the word cripple to describe Laura, and there’s still a shrine to her alcoholic charmer of a husband who’d left them bereft.

Tom is drifting through in an angry haze, but for Field this is really a play about the plight of women and how not much has changed. “Amanda had so few choices,” Field says. “No education, or not a lot of it. No family backing. You just had to figure out how to get through this, to keep your children alive the best way you can.” And each time she or Laura sees a crack in the ceiling they might crawl through, they are met with a harsh blow designed to mire them in the helplessness of a society that will not allow them to escape their circumstances. “What is there left but dependency all our lives?” Amanda laments.

A few days after we meet, Field will enter into an actor’s form of dependency: performing in front of an audience she cannot control or predict, one that may wish for Field not as she is, but as she once was in Steel Magnolias, Forrest Gump, and Mrs. Doubtfire. She’s not worried Vice-President Pence will show up like he did for Hamilton (“I somehow don’t feel he’ll be heading right toward The Glass Menagerie. Why do I not feel that?”), but it might be great if a few Trump-voting ladies saw it and walked away with a better sense of the pain that can come from misunderstanding one another’s differences. Does she really think they’d be any more interested in Glass than Pence would be? “Well,” she says, laughing, “they may come to see me.

*This article appears in the February 20, 2017, issue of New York Magazine.

At 70, Sally Field Gets Her Dream Role