Sunday, November 22, 2015

1984: Sally Field for Places in the Heart

In her second Oscar-winning performance, Sally Field plays a mother living in Texas during the Great Depression whose husband, the sheriff, is accidentally shot and killed by a black teenager. Desperate to keep her house and support her children, she hires a black vagrant to help her plant cotton.

This is one of my favorite movies for several reasons. The story is beautiful, and masterfully told. It conveys several powerful messages - forgiveness, racial reconciliation, etc - without shoving them down your throat. I could write an entire blog post analyzing the story (actually I could write an entire blog post just analyzing the last scene), but I'm here to talk about Sally Field's performance so I'll try to stay focused on that.

Field is very believable in this role. Her character initially appears simple, but is actually very complex and layered. In the beginning, you can tell that she wants to mourn her husband, and she barely manages to put on a brave face for her children. She initially appears rather weak and naive, but when she finds out she will probably lose her house and her family will be split up, she demonstrates more strength and determination than one would have thought she possessed. In some ways, this is very similar to her previous Oscar-winning performance in Norma Rae. Her characters are in very different circumstances, but they both find an inner strength that no one, including themselves, knew they possessed. Sally Field is very good at portraying this transformation realistically, and as subtly as possible, so that I didn't even notice this similarity between the characters until just now.

I also really like the way Field interacts with her co-stars, particularly Danny Glover, who plays the vagrant worker who helps her with the cotton, and John Malkovich, who plays her blind lodger. Given the racial tensions in the South, particularly at that time, and the fact that her husband had just been killed by a black kid, one would expect Field's character to be loath to work with a black man, but she recognizes that he's offering her the only viable solution to her problem. Field does a very good job of showing slight hesitation at first, but letting her determination overcome it almost instantly, and she eventually allows herself to become his friend. Similarly, she really doesn't want to take in the unpleasant blind man, but decides to make the most of it when she's basically forced to, and eventually becomes friends with him as well. The three of them bond over being societal outcasts, as a widow, a racial minority, and a handicapped person. They all had to give very believable performances and have good chemistry for this to work, and it ended up working extraordinarily well.

I think it's kind of unfair that Field was the only one who won an Oscar (although John Malkovich and Lindsay Crouse, who played Field's sister, were both nominated for supporting Oscars) because the whole cast is spectacular, and it's the ensemble, rather than Field's performance alone, that really makes this movie, at least for me. Don't get me wrong, it's still a remarkably good performance, and I think she deserved the Oscar; it's just that I feel like there is so much more to the movie than Field's performance. This is all a very good thing, but I think it makes this performance stand out less than some of the others that have won this award. At the same time, it reflects well on Field that she's able to let other actors share her spotlight when appropriate instead of insisting on dominating the whole movie.

Sally Field has only been nominated for two Best Actress Oscars and won both of them, although she was also nominated for Best Supporting Actress for 2012's Lincoln. As she pointed out in her acceptance speech for Places in the Heart, she hasn't had an orthodox career, but personally that's one of the main reasons why I like her. And by the way, in her acceptance speech she never actually said, "You really like me," she just said, "You like me" twice.

Coming up next: Geraldine Page

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