Sally Field, the movie director

Thursday, September 28th 2000, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

At first glance, Sally Field doesn't look like a fighter. She is petite. She is cheerleader-pretty. And, oh yes, she is perky.

But look closer. The eyes have a steely determination, and the smile reflects both awareness and acceptance. She survived the often unshakable typecasting of "teen cutie'' and overcame the potential earth-mother stereotypes of her Oscar-winning roles in Norma Rae and Places in the Heart. And she now joins the ranks of actors-turned-directors.

Her feature directorial debut, Beautiful, stars Minnie Driver as Mona, a coldly ambitious blue-collar worker who sees beauty pageants as her escape from an unloving family. Although the script has problems, Ms. Field's direction is firm and confident.

"Minnie came to me with the script around two years ago,'' Ms. Field says during a recent Dallas visit. "I instantly loved the character of Mona. She's not likeable in any conventional sense. She's flawed in ways that are larger than life. And yet ultimately you care about her. She has that kind of power over an audience.''

Ms. Field previously directed a segment of friend Tom Hanks' television series, From the Earth to the Moon, and a TV movie, The Christmas Tree, which starred Julie Harris. Starting in 1994, she studied film production at the Sundance Film Insitute.

"I'm glad I went into directing incrementally. Directing a feature film was a leap, but not a huge one. As a director, my instinct always is to care about the actors. Yet, one thing I've learned after 36 years in this business is to focus on the task at hand."

Although Beautiful takes shots at the backstabbing that can occur at a beauty pageant, Ms. Field did not seek to damage the pageants' image. "The pageants are a peculiarly American phenomenon. Yet the fact remains that they're still the largest scholastic organization for women in the United States. I talked with close to a hundred women who had been in pageants. All types of women are involved. There are some from really sad backgrounds who, like Mona, see the pageants as an escape. And there are those who are genuinely appreciative of the scholastic opportunities a pageant presents because they know they couldn't get an education any other way.

"And there are those, bless their hearts, who are just out there to win. They see the pageants completely as a business. Yet I found the women largely to be supportive of each other. For the most part, they were rooting for each other.''

Ms. Field says it's the same with actresses. "Everyone knows that there's not exactly an abundance of good roles for actresses. ... It's like musical chairs. There are maybe eight of us and only three chairs. Some are still going to be left standing. But that doesn't mean we want each other to fall on our faces.''

Ms. Field says she has tried to focus on her family as well as her career, which, she says, "is admittedly easy to say but not easy to do. Yet family is the most important thing humans do. We're all handed individual situations as a child. Our task as human beings is to move on, to keep our early situations from crippling our later life. I'm just now finding new places in myself by directing and writing. . I just assumed I would always be acting. But now I think of other things that I have to offer.''

She is the mother of three sons. Thirty-year-old Peter and 28-year-old Elijah are the sons of her first husband, childhood sweetheart Steve Craig. Twelve-year-old Sam is the son of her second husband, producer Alan Greisman. She is now single and unattached.

"My children have a love/hate relationship with show business, which is what I would prefer them to have. ... It's not a business to be completely loved or completely hated. And I wouldn't want them to be la-dee-dah about it."

Eli has pursued an acting career and recently sold his first screenplay. Peter is an author whose novel, The Martini Shot, was published in 1998. He is married to poet Amy Scattergood, and they have a 2-year-old daughter, Isabel.

One of the great influences on Ms. Field was the late Martin Ritt. The acclaimed director survived being blacklisted during the McCarthy Era and created Hud, Sounder and Norma Rae.

"Everyone thought he was crazy when he cast me in Norma Rae. But he had faith in me. He taught me so much. I knew very little about actual politics, although I had strong convictions of what's right and wrong in the world. He's been gone for 10 years now, but I still have conversations with him.

"Here was this man who suffered, who was denied work in the field that he loved simply because of his political beliefs. And yet, he always, always believed that people are truly good. He felt that people could be mistaken and misled, and they could be given wrong information. But he always thought they were basically good. Sometimes, I'll be sitting by myself and I'll say, 'Hey, Marty, let's talk.' You can't let someone like that go.''

Letting go, under any circumstances, is not something Ms. Field does.