Total Recall

Definitive Sally Field Movies

In this week's Total Recall, we look back at the roles that helped define the Hello, My Name is Doris star's career.

by | March 9, 2016 | Comments

This weekend’s Hello, My Name Is Doris brings Sally Field back to the big screen after far too many years between leading roles, and in honor of this happy occasion, we decided to turn our attention to some of the most definitive performances in this two-time Oscar winner’s illustrious filmography. It’s time for Total Recall!


Stay Hungry (1976) 75%

Field started her strong 1970s run with an appearance in Bob Rafelson’s Stay Hungry, a Jeff Bridges dramedy about a layabout whose duties for a shady real estate developer lead him into a below-board deal that’s supposed to lead to the shutdown of a gym — until he falls for the gym’s receptionist and strikes up a friendship with one of the biggest bodybuilders (Arnold Schwarzenegger). It would be misleading to suggest that anything truly unexpected happens here, but Stay Hungry goes a long way on the youthful charms of its talented cast, and you can’t really go wrong with a movie that asks you to believe Schwarzenegger as a bluegrass fiddler. “It has its slack spells,” admitted Time Out’s Nigel Floyd, “but Rafelson’s sure feel for the inexpressible subtleties of emotional relationships is evident throughout.”

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Smokey and the Bandit (1977) 79%

A man, a plan, a whole bunch of beer — Smokey and the Bandit! At the time, this cheerfully knuckleheaded road-trip comedy about a scofflaw (Burt Reynolds) who bets he can speed a shipment of beer across state lines (and against the law) under the nose of a sputtering sheriff (Jackie Gleason) may have seemed like an awfully thin excuse to make a movie, but its artful blend of cornpone humor and high-octane action can be found imprinted upon the DNA of countless films to follow. Bandit inspired a pair of sequels and legions of imitators, yet while some of them may have had cooler stunts and sleeker cars, very few could come close to finding a starring duo with the breezy chemistry enjoyed by Reynolds’ Bandit and Sally Field as Carrie, the runaway bride whose spurned dimwit of a fiance just happens to be Gleason’s son. The end result, chuckled Marjorie Baumgarten for the Austin Chronicle, is “the king of the ‘good ol’ boy’ movies.”

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Norma Rae (1979) 88%

Field won her first Best Actress Academy Award for her portrayal of the labor heroine that Norma Rae is named for — a feisty union organizer based on Crystal Lee Sutton, the cotton mill worker whose real-life struggle to improve conditions at her factory inspired a bestselling book, not to mention countless moviegoers. When it was released in 1978, Norma Rae was a tip of the hat to the sacrifices borne by union members in the early 20th century (including Sutton, who ended up losing her job); today, it serves as a reminder that the battle for workers’ rights is far from over. Either way, it’s the movie that Ken Hanke of the Asheville Mountain XPress called “A beautifully made, splendidly acted film that more than achieves its aims.”

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Absence Of Malice (1981) 80%

Media-bashing has become so trendy that you’d almost never know that being part of the Fourth Estate was once regarded as an honorable profession — a public service, even. Of course, that isn’t to say reporters haven’t always been dogged by questions of ethics — and few directors were better at framing a thorny ethical debate than Sydney Pollack. In Absence of Malice, Paul Newman plays the son of a Mafia boss who is outed as the subject of a murder investigation by an ambitious (and somewhat scruple-deficient) reporter played by Sally Field. Though a large number of critics felt Pollack and screenwriter Kurt Luedtke failed to present a truly compelling picture — and some, like Dennis Schwartz of Ozus’ World Movie Reviews, dismissed it as a “well-meaning liberal message story” — others praised its strong performances and overall intelligence. As James Rocchi wrote, “the ultimate conclusion of the film will leave you thoughtful and even perhaps a touch sad — rare for any film, and even more rare for a thriller.”

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Places in the Heart (1984) 96%

Field won a Best Actress Oscar and John Malkovich earned a Best Supporting Actor nomination for their work in this 1984 drama, which tells the story of a widowed woman who struggles to keep her Texas farm afloat during the Great Depression while her sister (Lindsay Crouse) deals with her crumbling marriage to a carouser (Ed Harris). The kind of film whose plot doesn’t seem to cover a lot of ground, but which deals with some unmistakably weighty themes (in this case racism, adultery, and family commitment), Places in the Heart wasn’t necessarily one of the most exciting pictures of the year, but it was an Academy favorite — Field’s Best Actress win prompted her oft-lampooned “you like me” speech — and a source of admiration for critics like Vincent Canby of the New York Times, who wrote, “Out of the memories of his boyhood in Waxahachie, Tex., during the Great Depression, and within the unlikely tradition of the old-fashioned ‘mortgage’ melodrama, Robert Benton has made one of the best films in years about growing up American.”

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Murphy's Romance (1985) 72%

Even back in 1985, they weren’t making ’em like Murphy’s Romance anymore — which would be reason enough to celebrate this quiet, small-town tale of a divorced single mom who finds love with an older man even if it didn’t serve as a showcase for the talents of Sally Field and James Garner. Predictably, Field (who also served as a producer) had to fight to get it made her way, up to insisting on casting Garner (who earned an Oscar nomination for his work), but she was vindicated by the overall favorable reviews that greeted Murphy’s Romance during its reasonably successful box-office run. “The whole point of this movie,” observed Roger Ebert, “is how it looks at those characters, and listens to them, and allows them to live in a specific time and place.”

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Soapdish (1991) 69%

The over-the-top melodrama of soaps is part of their enduring appeal, but what if things were just as crazy behind the scenes? That’s the novel twist imagined by Soapdish, in which a daytime drama’s longtime star (played by Field) finds herself under professional attack by a rival (Cathy Moriarty) and her disenchanted producer (Robert Downey, Jr.). Their efforts unearth real-life secrets after the return of an old star (Kevin Kline) and the ascent of a new cast member (Elisabeth Shue) — all of which have the unintended effect of making the show, and Field’s character, more popular than ever. “Soapdish is pure joy,” wrote Rita Kempley for the Washington Post, calling it “a lemon-fresh spoof of daytime drama that does the dishing and may even soften your hands.”

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Mrs. Doubtfire (1993) 71%

It was Robin Williams who undoubtedly got most of Mrs. Doubtfire’s laughs — and carried the movie, as well as several pounds of latex, while wearing a dress — but aside from offering proof that Williams would have made a fairly convincing elderly woman (and delivering cinema’s first recorded run-by fruiting), this dramedy takes a bittersweet look at the wreckage left behind after Williams’ man-child antics push his wife (played by Field) beyond her breaking point. With Pierce Brosnan adding additional support as Field’s dashing boyfriend, Doubtfire offers a deceptively even-handed picture of post-divorce parenting between the guffaws. “In terms of plot, the film is rather feeble,” admitted ReelViews’ James Berardinelli. “But sometimes there’s more to a movie than story, and this is one of those rare occasions when all the other elements pull together and lift the production.”

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Forrest Gump (1994) 72%

All things considered, Sally Field probably shouldn’t have been playing Forrest Gump’s mom — she is, after all, only a decade older than Tom Hanks — but setting that bit of Hollywood chicanery aside, there isn’t a thing wrong with her performance in this Oscar-winning hit. After all, who better to personify the precise blend of sweetness and determined pragmatism that leads Mrs. Gump to get it on with a reluctant principal in order to get young Forrest into public school? A massive hit that was later the victim of a backlash, Gump earned mostly positive reviews from critics who, while far from blind to the film’s flaws, were powerless to resist its good-natured charm. “It might hit you right in the feels, even as your eyes are rolling,” wrote Slant’s Rob Humanick. “To quote one of Forrest’s truest pieces of wisdom: Maybe both is happening at the same time.”

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Lincoln (2012) 89%

He presided over the most tumultuous time in our nation’s history, accomplished great things while in office, and ended his administration — and his life — in violent tragedy. Needless to say, Abraham Lincoln’s life is the stuff that Oscar-winning films are made of — and with Steven Spielberg at the helm, directing a stellar cast that included Tommy Lee Jones, Hal Holbrook, Sally Field, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, and an almost unrecognizable Daniel Day-Lewis as the man himself, Lincoln was a virtual shoo-in for a Best Picture nomination even before it arrived in theaters. Of course, it helped that the finished product was one of 2012’s best-reviewed films thanks to critics like Michael Phillips of the Chicago Tribune, who wrote, “It blends cinematic Americana with something grubbier and more interesting than Americana, and it does not look, act or behave like the usual perception of a Spielberg epic.”

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  • john in denver

    It was TV’s Sybil (1975) that woke me up to the fact me she was one hell of an actress.

  • TomNewYorker

    My 10 Favorite Sally Field Movies are
    1-Forrest Gump
    2-Mrs. Doubtifre
    3-Smokey & The Bandit
    4-Amazing Spider-Man 1 & 2
    5-Steel Magnolias
    6-Soapdish
    7-Where The Heart Is
    8-Norma Rae
    9-Lincoln
    10-Sybil

    • TheTwoJakes

      Steel Magnolias! She was so good in this….love the cemetery scene. “Take a whack at Weeza!”

    • Sean Jones

      She came out saying she HATED doing Amazing Spiderman movies, but she did it for her friend, she knew it was going to be the producer’s last movies, so she did it for her. Sally Field isn’t your average normal Hollywood snob, she’s a real human being who has a good heart & one of my fav actresses.

  • Joe Mack

    No Amazing Spider-man?

  • Ross H

    Gee… I thought that “Not Without My Daughter” was one of her better ones for sure…. a true story too.

    • tb thomas

      That was a terrific film and great performance of hers. When I saw the trailer for Doris, one of the first things that popped into my head: “I like her…I really like her!”

  • Sharon Mahart

    I’ll still watch Smokey and the Bandit every time it’s on!

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