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MOVIES : The Best Revenge : Sally Field takes the law into her own hands in 'Eye for an Eye.' But her ultimate payback? Being able to keep reinventing her career.

January 14, 1996|David Kronke | David Kronke is a frequent contributor to Calendar

Most of the items on display in Sally Field's den are the things you'd expect to see--the two best actress Oscars (for "Norma Rae," 1979, and "Places in the Heart," 1984), the Emmy ("Sybil," 1976), the Golden Globe ("Places in the Heart"), the best actress citation from the Cannes Film Festival ("Norma Rae"). In one corner sits a stack of videotapes and academy screeners; the most amusing juxtaposition is a copy of "Places in the Heart" next to the Arnold Schwarzenegger blast-fest "True Lies" (tellingly, neither has left its shrink-wrap).

On one shelf, though, in a silver frame, resides a cartoon clipped from a magazine. In it, a man stands sullenly in a room; his hands grasp the two prison bars from between which he peers. Those two prison bars, by the way, are the only things the room has to offer; nothing else, in fact, prevents him from leaving.

"I've had that literally since I've been in the business," Field says. "My shrink gave that to me when I first started to see him when I was 18. I've kept it all these years. That cartoon has always been important to me, because it's so hard not to be that man. Because all he has to do is turn his head and see that there are no other bars except those two, and yet he stands there, complaining viciously about those two bars, saying, 'I can't get out, I'm a prisoner.' Every once in a while, I'll just go look at it and think, 'Oh, yeah.'

"It's applicable to anybody, any time, anywhere. You always feel trapped at some time in your life, and all it takes is turning around and looking another way to realize, no, you're not. Somehow, though, those bars are serving him. He wasn't ready to get out of that box yet."

Field, 49, has never been afraid to escape from whatever box she might be in. She abandoned sitcoms ("Gidget," "The Flying Nun") in the early '70s when the format threatened to make her a danger to diabetics or, worse yet, irrelevant; she responded with a wrenching portrait of a schizophrenic in "Sybil." She then segued from a series of dopey comedies with then-paramour Burt Reynolds to the social conscience of "Norma Rae," and moved on to the uplift of "Places in the Heart" before sending up her squeaky-clean image playing an aging soap-opera diva in "Soapdish." When roles threatened to dry up, she formed a production company, though she says unabashedly, "I hate producing. I despise it. It's vile. But thank God there are people who do it magnificently."

Her range extends to her characters' ages. She went from playing Robin Williams' ex-wife in "Mrs. Doubtfire," one of the biggest hits of 1993, to playing Tom Hanks' mother in "Forrest Gump," the biggest hit of 1994 (and that, a scant few years after playing Hanks' potential love interest in "Punchline").

And now, in "Eye for an Eye," Field is using her persona as America's good neighbor to make a statement about the ever-encroaching specter of violent crime. She stars as Karen McCann, a content, upscale mother of two who flirts with street justice when an unrepentant scumbag (Kiefer Sutherland) murders her teenage daughter and is released from jail on a legal technicality.

Director John Schlesinger, who had previously tried without success to work with Field on a project at Savoy that fell through, believes she is key to the film's working: "There were others on the list the studio thought would attract a larger public, but I'm absolutely delighted that they either weren't available or didn't want to do it."

Schlesinger says that one of the most enticing reasons to cast Field in this drama is that "she's never done it. There are other actresses that one might expect would be equal to pulling the trigger, but there's not that feeling about Sally. She's played roles in which her character has stood up to society, to the status quo, but she's never been involved in any type of violence. The journey that her character makes is unexpected for her and therefore fresher."

Adds Paramount Pictures head Sherry Lansing, who suggested Field: "She's an Everywoman to everyone. People think they're like her. Sally Field picking up a gun is something nobody in their wildest dreams would think of. It's a surprise to the audience, yet it's an incredible tribute to her talent that they believe it. She has this vulnerability so that in this film, if you're liberal, you understand why she does what she does, and if you're conservative, you're for it anyway."

"I find that interesting," Field says of the film and her role within it. "It's not safe, this film is not at all safe, it's provocative in that way. At its heart, it's a quintessential thriller, but the way John Schlesinger does it, it's also dark and provocative and controversial. There will be people who will take it one way and there will be people who take it another. It almost doesn't say one thing one way or another, it paints a certain picture of our time and this person who responds in the way she does to the violence thrust into her life.

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