Hollywood royalty arrives on the Southbank in the shape of Sally Field

I feel as though I’ve known Sally Field my entire life. She has a knack for choosing iconic characters and, as tonight’s interviewer Elizabeth Day commented: “Everyone has their own, favourite Sally Field”. On the Southbank to promote her new memoir, ‘In Pieces’, it was hugely exciting seeing Ms Field in the flesh for the first time. Physically, she’s tiny: petite in stature and girlishly slim, despite being (unbelievably) 72 years old.

“How do we age – at all?” she asked us, with a Hollywood-esque roll of the eyes. “My agent recently made me dye my hair; apparently, my grey hairs “wash me out””. To sympathetic murmurs from the audience, Field continued, “There are so few women to look to; how do you own your years? I don’t want to f*****g hide mine!”

Cheers from all those present: how refreshing, to hear such a huge star talk so candidly about her experience of ageing. But let’s leave such depressing talk behind us for a moment and travel back in time, as Field’s book does. In fact, let’s start with the reason that she actually wrote this book.

“My mother passed away on my 65th birthday”, Field began, “and at that time, I thought we’d had all the right conversations. But then, I felt a deep disquiet”. Pausing for a moment to reflect, Field eventually shared: “Something just felt wrong; as though there was something gangrenous growing on me”. Out of the blue, Field was approached by the Omega Institute to give the keynote speech at a women’s conference – and stunned herself by writing an hour-long personal commentary.

“I realised, then, that I needed to find my story – and write it”, Field recalled. Now on a mission, she dug out letters, journals and memorabilia that she’d stored away decades previously and never revisited. “Previously”, she admitted, “I never wanted to know what they said”.

Yet writing, Field says, “did not come easily” – even though, over time, it has become her “best friend and confidante”. Hollywood suggested numerous memoir writers to her, “but none of them were right”. Instead, she researched authors whose memoirs she admired –and found that they were all represented by Molly Friedrich. Excited, she approached Friedrich – only to be told “We are not a match”.

One year later, however, Field and Friedrich met in New York – where Friedrich reiterated that she couldn’t understand the story Field wanted to tell. Nonetheless, she set Field a writing task which “fired me up” – and, over the next six years, Field wrote 500 pages.The rest, as they say…

What I loved most about Sally Field was her willingness to answer questions on any subject. It was inevitable that ‘The Flying Nun’ would come up in conversation and Field gamely shared one of her most vivid memories. The sitcom was a huge success, but she found it “humiliating”, wanting to be a “real” actor. Out of the blue, she was asked to present an award at the Golden Globes – but as the Flying Nun, rather than herself. “I couldn’t say no”, she groaned, “so I said yes – but that I wouldn’t wear the outfit”. No one protested, “…so I flew across a fake Coconut Grove, wearing a pink taffeta dress my mother had made me, UNREHEARSED!”

Straight into John Wayne’s arms Field flew: “We’d never met before!” Even though she’d landed directly on the great man’s chest at around 40 miles per hour, the veteran actor gallantly held Sally Field in his arms while she presented the ‘Newcomer of the Year Award’ to Dustin Hoffman.

Having worked in Hollywood since she was 17, Field was able find a way through this quagmire. “It wasn’t always easy, though – particularly when it came to balancing motherhood with working”. “I was always the breadwinner”, Field told us, “as well as taking care of my mother and my sister. I didn’t want to sell myself out – but I had to earn a living”. The nature of her work meant that Field had to leave her children from the last year of ‘The Flying Nun’: “Even though I was bleeding inside”. She did, eventually, become a “whole person”again. “It’s a constant, complicated pull and a feeling that never goes away…even though my eldest son is nearly 50!”

It’s reassuring that Hollywood icons suffer from the same insecurities as everyone else – and oh, how happy Field made us when she went on to talk about ‘Steel Magnolias’. I still, vividly, remember going to see this film at Bromley Odeon – and can recall the woman sitting in front of us fleeing the cinema in tears, her embarrassed boyfriend following her out of the building, the rest of us looking on whilst howling into our hankies. “It was a wonderful script and when the cast came together we were uncontainable”, reminisced Field. “We had so much fun together – to the trepidation of the mainly male crew”. Smiling, she continued, “It’s apparent on screen how we made each other laugh and that we loved each other. It was such a special time – and it’s so untrue that women hate each other”.

Inevitably, Field was asked about‘Mrs Doubtfire’ and Robin Williams. “Robin was Robin”, she began, “and he is gone way too soon”. Elaborating, Field revealed that Williams was “electric and exhausting”. During the filming of ‘Mrs Doubtfire’, he stayed within the perimeters of the scene for the first couple of takes – but then, wanting to be free, would generate idea after idea for the remainder of the day.”I love improv”, Field clarified, “but I found it difficult to keep up”. Instead, she found another route to Williams’ heart through, of all things, video games. “We were filming ‘Mrs Doubtfire’ when the first ‘Zelda’ game came out – and we used to play it together. Robin loved that game so much that he called his daughter Zelda”.

Of fame, Field says she finds it“conflicting” – unsurprising, given that she’s been in the public eye for so long. She likes having the opportunity to showcase her work, “but being famous can be crappy –and it cuts you off from people”. In another moment of refreshing honesty Field admitted that it’s equally weird not to be recognised. “Fame is a mystery, but I’ve learned to deal with it – and if necessary, I’ll use it to get a table in a restaurant!”

Elizabeth Day expressed surprise that ‘Brothers and Sisters’ isn’t discussed in Field’s book (you’ll recall that Field played the family matriarch, Nora).That’s because, responded Field, she’s written a memoir rather than an autobiography. Much of Nora, apparently, was Field’s own writing: “The show’s writers had no idea how to write about an older woman with adult children” and she found the character a “gift”, particularly because her own son, Sam, was struggling with his sexuality at the time, mirroring Nora’s relationship with Matthew Rhys’s character.

What Field does talk about in the book is her own experience of sexual abuse, at the hands of her stepfather –and its lifelong impact. “In my brain”, she told us, “love and danger go together”. There has been an emotional cost to speaking up for abuse survivors, for example the many “insensitive” questions she’s been asked since beginning her book tour. That said, Field professes herself to have been deeply touched by the way in which people have shared their own experiences with her.

This was an engrossing evening. Field was an engaging and warm interviewee and I’m greatly looking forward to reading her memoir. Likewise, Elizabeth Day proved herself to be just as good alive speaker as she is an author (and if you haven’t yet read ‘The Party’, I highly recommend doing so). The two women were well matched

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