As she said when she collected her second Oscar for Best Actress, Sally Field hasn’t had an orthodox career. Plucked out of a drama class when she was barely out of high school Field was cast as the perky surfer girl Gidget for one season on TV. She then did three seasons in the preposterous series “The Flying Nun.” Not exactly the kind of work that would portend a serious new actress had arrived. In fact at the age of 24, Field found herself to be somewhat of an industry joke.
While many sitcom stars who fell into obscurity, Field managed to turn her career around. She began working with famed acting teacher Lee Strasberg and slowly things started to change for her. She found work in a series of well regarded TV movies and won an Emmy for the miniseries “Sybil” about a child abuse victim that developed 16 different personalities in order to cope with her childhood trauma.
In the 1970s actors didn’t move as freely back and forth between film and television as they do today, so even with her acclaim for “Sybil,” Field found obtaining work in movies a bit of a challenge. That all changed when she was cast in the title role of “Norma Rae,” which would launch an impressive film career with her first Academy Award. Her movies since then have included “Places in the Heart” (a second Oscar win), “Absence of Malice,” “Steel Magnolias,” “Lincoln” (a third nomination) and more.
Tour our photo gallery of her 16 greatest film performances, ranked from worst to best.
15. BEYOND THE POSEIDON ADVENTURE (1979)
Director: Irwin Allen. Writer: Nelson Gidding. Starring Michael Caine, Karl Malden, Telly Savalas.
It took seven years for this sequel to the immensely successful and beloved “The Poseidon Adventure” to hit movie screens and in that time the love for the genre had pretty much ended. Director Irwin Allen who had pioneered the disaster epic had a bomb the year before with “The Swarm” and the fate of this film was quite similar. BUT despite its place on many critics year’s end worse movie lists Field managed to give a surprisingly refreshing performance as one of the passengers trying to escape the capsized ship. She brings a comedic self-deprecation to her role and the moment when all the men rush to help a glamorous and beautiful Veronica Hamel (of “Hill Street Blues”) fame while letting Field fend for herself is a nice comic scene set amidst all the how shall we say, disaster.
14. BACK ROADS (1981)
Director: Martin Ritt. Writer: Gary DeVore. Starring Tommy Lee Jones, David Keith, Michael V. Gazzo.
After her Oscar win for “Norma Rae” made Field a movie star she only released two films in the following years both sequels (the aforementioned “Beyond the Poseidon Adventure” and “Smokey and the Bandit II.” Her next big film was supposed to be this comedy that reunited her with her “Norma Rae” director Martin Ritt. The film casts Field as a hooker who meets a down on his luck boxer played by Tommy Lee Jones. The two stars clashed vehemently on the set and Jones would later apologize to Field for his attitude during the film. Interestingly they would both earn Oscar nominations years later for “Lincoln.”
14. SPOILER ALERT (2022)
Director: Michael Showalter
Writers: David Marshall Grant, Dan Savage. Based on the book “Spoiler Alert: The Hero Dies” by Michael Ausiello
Starring: Jim Parsons, Ben Aldridge, Sally Field, Bill IrwinParsons stars in and produces this moving, frank and straight ahead love story-turned-tragedy that’s based on the 2017 memoir “Spoiler Alert: The Hero Dies” by Michael Ausiello, editor-in-chief of TVLine (owned by Gold Derby parent PMC) and who also serves as an executive producer of the film. It tells the story of Ausiello’s (played by Parsons) 13-year relationship with the man who ultimately became his husband, Kit Cowan (Aldridge), who dies of cancer way too young. Field turns in her usual powerful performance, playing Kit’s mother Marilyn Cowan as a tender and loving chatterbox who bonds with Ausiello, particularly during her son’s illness. The movie mostly misfires when it goes for laughs but connects in illustrating the natural cycle of romantic love and the profound ways in which commitment defines our humanity.
13. HELLO MY NAME IS DORIS (2015)
Director: Michael Showalter. Writers: Laura Terruso,Michael Showalter. Starring Max Greenfield, Kumail Nanjiani, Stephen Root.
Field recently had a minor hit with this touching comedy about an older somewhat out of touch woman who strikes up a friendship with a much younger man with whom she works. Doris is an oddly dressed older woman working among a bunch of hip young New York millennials. Max Greenfield plays the object of her desire who unknowingly (or does he?) encourages her affection. The film is surprisingly touching and allows Field to use her comedic chops which haven’t been seen on screen for a long time.
12. KISS ME GOODBYE (1982)
Director: Robert Mulligan. Writer: Charlie Peters. Starring James Caan, Jeff Bridges, Claire Trevor.
Set in the world of the Broadway theater, “Kiss Me Goodbye” is an American version of the acclaimed Brazilian film “Dona Flor and Her Two Husbands.” Field plays a woman whose choreographer husband falls to his death down a staircase in their townhouse. When she returns to the house a while later with a new fiancee she finds that the old husband (James Caan) is haunting the house.
11. ABSENCE OF MALICE (1982)
Director: Sydney Pollack. Writer: Kurt Luedtke. Starring Paul Newman, Melinda Dillon, Bob Balaban.
Field earned a Golden Globe nomination and Paul Newman eared an Oscar nomination for this story about ethics in journalism. Field plays a reporter who publishes a story which leads to the suicide of a woman (Melinda Dillon, also Oscar nominated.) Field stepped into the role after Diane Keaton dropped out of the film. This is an interesting entry on Field’s resume since it is one of the rare times that she was cast as a somewhat unlikable character. It is interesting to watch Field consciously trying to suppress the perky sweetness that is often present in her work.
10. SMOKEY AND THE BANDIT (1977)
Director: Hal Needham. Writers: James Lee Barrett, Charles Shyer, Alan Mandel. Starring Burt Reynolds, Jerry Reed, Paul Williams.
Due to her initial exposure to audiences as a TV star Field had trouble gaining film roles even after her acclaimed Emmy winning work in the mini-series “Sybil.” She took what film she could including this car chase comedy that was a huge hit for her and her then boyfriend Burt Reynolds. Field plays a runaway bride who somehow gets caught up in the auto tricks the film specializes in.
9. SOAPDISH (1991)
Director: Michael Hoffman. Writers: Robert Harling, Andrew Bergman. Starring Whoopi Goldberg, Kevin Kline, Robert Downey Jr.
This popular comedy stars Field as a daytime soap opera star trying to hold onto her job while a scheming co-star and producer try to get rid of her. She is also forced to reunite with an ex lover whom she loathes (Kevin Kline) and a starstruck relative who in soap opera fashion turns out to be her daughter (Elisabeth Shue) who wants to get into the acting business.
8. PUNCHLINE (1988)
Director and writer: David Seltzer. Starring Tom Hanks, John Goodman, Mark Rydell.
This somewhat forgotten entry on Field’s resume was the first time she was paired with Tom Hanks with whom she would later go on to make film history. The film is set in the world of stand up comedy which was thriving during the eighties. Hanks plays a somewhat self-destructive comic desperate for success while Field plays a suburban mother and wife who starts dabbling in the comedy world but is torn over the strain it places on her family.
7. MRS. DOUBTFIRE (1993)
Director: Chris Columbus. Writers: Randi Mayem Singer, Leslie Dixon. Starring Robin Williams, Pierce Brosnan, Harvey Fierstein.
“Mrs Doubtfire” stars Robin Williams as a divorced man who dresses up as an English nanny and takes a job working for his ex-wife so he can be closer to his children. The interesting thing about Field’s performance is how genuinely seriously she takes the role. The audience’s belief that this is really a proper English woman and not Robin Williams in drag depends a lot on how realistically Field plays her scenes with Mrs. Doubtfire whom she never once suspects is really her ex-husband. Outtakes of the film released in a recent documentary on Williams show how on her toes Field had to be since it was always unpredictable as to when Williams would begin to ad lib.
6. MURPHY’S ROMANCE (1985)
Director: Martin Ritt. Writers: Harriet Frank Jr., Irving Ravetch. Starring James Garner, Brian Kerwin, Corey Haim.
Field earned a Golden Globe nomination and her co-star James Garner earned his only Oscar nomination for this film about a woman who returns to her small town and finds herself falling in love with a somewhat older man. The films conclusion with Field announcing she’s in love for the first time in her life and Garner saying he’s in love for the last time in his life is romantic comedy at its most touching.
5. FORREST GUMP (1994)
Director: Robert Zemeckis. Writer: Eric Roth. Starring Tom Hanks, Robin Wright, Gary Sinise.
“Forrest Gump” became a bit of a national sensation when it was released in the summer of 1994. Field plays the mother of the title character who despite his mental limitations goes on to lead a full life and also develops a knack for being in the right place when history is being made. Field’s death bed conversation with Forrest where he asks her what his destiny is and she informs him that he’ll have to find that out for himself ranks as one of the most spine tingly moving moments in film history.
4. LINCOLN (2012)
Director: Steven Spielberg. Writer: Eric Roth. Starring Daniel Day-Lewis, Tommy Lee Jones, David Strathairn.
After a long absence from the Academy Awards Field returned to the competition with her work as Mary Todd Lincoln opposite Daniel Day-Lewis’ Oscar winning turn as Abraham Lincoln. Field earned her first Best Supporting Actress nomination for the film (and it was also the first time she was Oscar nominated and didn’t win.) Field’s story of how she was cast in the film when it was to star Liam Neeson but then years went by without the film being made is a bit inspiring. When the film eventually was going to be shot Steven Spielberg called Field saying he just didn’t think it was going to work out since Day-Lewis was younger and he didn’t think they’d make a believable couple. Field asked to audition with Day-Lewis and won the role which shows even a two time Oscar winner should be humble enough to audition when a plum role like Mary Todd Lincoln is on the line.
3. STEEL MAGNOLIAS (1989)
Director: Herbert Ross. Writer: Eric Roth. Starring Shirley MacLaine, Dolly Parton, Julia Roberts.
This beloved film casts Field as one of a group of friends who frequently discuss life’s ups and downs while they are getting their hair done in a salon owned by the Dolly Parton character in the rural south. The film provided then unknown Julia Roberts with a star making role as Field’s daughter who insists on having a child even though that could be quite dangerous to her health given she is a diabetic. Field’s final grave yard scene is one of the rawest displays of emotion and grief ever displayed on film and the comic twist at the end of it is just a gem of a moment. According to co-star Shirley MacLaine Field gave her performance with full out emotion for each of her co-stars closeup scenes which prompted MacLaine to proclaim her the most generous co-star she with whom she ever worked.
2. PLACES IN THE HEART (1984)
Director and writer: Robert Benton. Starring John Malkovitch, Danny Glover, Lindsay Crouse.
Unfortunately “Places in the Heart” will be forever linked with Field’s emotional Oscar speech where she proclaimed “you like me” and then was endlessly mocked by comedians for years afterwards. That is too bad because this entry which in addition to its Oscar for Best Actress for Field also earned a Best Original Screenplay Oscar for legendary filmmaker Robert Benton really is filmmaking at its best. Field plays Edna Spalding a suddenly widowed woman who defies the odds to keep her family intact by raising cotton. The movie features everything from a riveting tornado scene to a harrowing display of the racial hatred of the KKK. Especially touching in the film is a scene where Field’s blind embittered boarder (Oscar nominee John Malkovitch in an early film role) asks Field to describe what she looks like. Field and Malkovitch play the scene beautifully as the two troubled souls find a moment of connection and a brief bit of happiness in their turbulent lives.
1. NORMA RAE (1979)
Director: Martin Ritt. Writer: Irving Ravetch ,Harriet Frank Jr. Starring Ron Liebman, Beau Bridges, Pat Hingle.
Nobody in the film business seemed to want to play the title role in “Norma Rae.” A-List film actresses Jane Fonda, Jill Clayburgh, Marsha Mason, and Diane Keaton all turned down the role leaving director Martin Ritt to give the part to Field who was largely considered a television actress at this time and the transition from TV to movies was a tough jump back then. Field took the role and ran with it giving jone of the most acclaimed performances ever on film. She would go on to run the compete derby of awards winning the Cannes Film Festival, all the major film critic’s awards, the Golden Globe and finally the Oscar as Best Actress. Interestingly her Oscar competition included all the women who turned down the role (Fonda, Clayburgh, and Mason as well as Diane Keaton who wasn’t even nominated for her work in that year.) Field plays a somewhat irresponsible and hopeless woman who works in a small town mill. She finds purpose in life when she joins up with a man who is trying to unionize the factory. Field’s standing on a table with the word “union” written on it which slowly convinces her coworkers to join the union is one of those goose flesh inducing moments that only rarely come about in movies.