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.

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.

"I like the fact that certain people will take it certain ways. Times are so complicated right now that I believe we can't be just conservatives or liberals or Republicans or Democrats. This is the richest country in the world and the most violent. There's something to deal with here."

Still, it is a film in which an act of vigilantism is depicted as cathartic, and therefore, lays itself open to charges that it encourages such behavior.

Field acknowledges that it's a long way from that simple grace moment that concluded "Places in the Heart," when killer and victim shared Holy Communion together, to the blunt brutality of "Eye for an Eye."

"It's a commentary, I don't know if you'd call it bleak or just realistic," she says. "We've changed a lot as a country since the '80s. 'Places in the Heart' is a very spiritual film, and we're not a very spiritual country right now."

For better or worse, pundits will observe that "Eye for an Eye," with its theme of failed justice and legal minutiae obscuring essential questions of guilt or innocence, has fallen into the far-reaching radar of the O.J. Simpson murder trial. There are a number of coincidences connecting the production and the trial: Field received the script a year ago, just as the marathon Simpson trial was kicking off.

Moreover, the movie was first screened for Paramount employees on the day of the verdict. "I was there when they saw it," Schlesinger says. "It was definitely fresh on everybody's mind. Audiences today are very aware of all sorts of circumstances that are equivalent. Nobody knew what the outcome would be when we started working on the film, so you can't draw that parallel exactly, but it clearly will cause comment on the platform, as they say."

Nonetheless, she downplays the similarities. "I think the O.J. trial can't be totally related to this film," she says. "All you can say is that there was a violent murder and if people thought O.J. did it, then he got off, and the family is left to resolve their feelings on their own, because no one is left responsible for the death of their child. In that case, you can say there are similarities, but that's just one. There are so many publicized cases [of justice denied] all over the country. To me, more what is felt across the country is fear that violence is getting so close--it used to feel so far away, but now, you're bombarded with it."

Field says her own personal feelings toward lawlessness and retribution cannot be divined from the film.

"It's an actor's job to stay out of it and be neutral," she says. "I simply had to be my character and not judge her and certainly not editorialize anything I might feel. That's not my job." In fact, she finds it difficult to articulate her feelings: "I don't know what I would do. Thank God I don't, and I hope I never have to find out." (Field pointed out that this interview occurred on the day her home security system was being tested.)

'Eye for an Eye," she says, was her most emotionally grueling assignment since "Sybil." "From the opening sequence on, she's just shot from a cannon, and what she feels varies, but the incident stays so close to her, I couldn't let down," Field says. "She goes mad, she can't let it go, she can't stop living it. So I couldn't stop living it.

"You don't really unwind, you don't let it go [when you go home]," she continues. "You know this is your task for X amount of days and you're glad that day is over and you can check those scenes off, and you prepare for the next battle."

To that end, Field says, she and Schlesinger shared a catch phrase to chart and rein in the escalating emotionalism of her performance: "More, more, more--too much."

"I told him, the only way to get to this performance was to go into that land, and I wouldn't be able to judge," she says. "I had to completely rely on him to tell me whether the colors that were there were too purple. That's when we created this little dialogue--'too much.' It was our joke. After a while, he didn't have to say it, he just gave me that look."

"That was our code," Schlesinger agrees. "At the end of the film, she gave me a beautiful watch with the inscription, 'Too much.' "

"I never saw someone so devoted to her craft," remarks Michael Levy, the film's producer. "She's the queen of this business. What Audrey Hepburn had, she has."

Indeed, Field has a longevity that in this age of flavors of the month is downright astonishing. "It's harder being a woman over 35, but it's still possible, because I'm still here," she says.

No other actor, male or female, has been as busy in high-profile projects as long as Field, and she and Jodie Foster are the only working actresses with two best actress Oscars (one of Meryl Streep's, in case you're wondering, is for best supporting actress).

"The Oscars have changed so much," she observes, referring to the attendant hoopla. "It didn't used to be quite like it is. Now, it's a moonshot, it's the cure for cancer. There's so much focus on it. You used to be able to go in and just get a dress. One day, just in and out of the store--'Oh, that one, that's fine.'

"Now, people are already asking what designer you've picked and designers are calling and jewelry is rented. My lord! It's all about money now. It's all about how much money people are making, either the networks or the designers or the caterers. It's totally taken away from the work of the artist who's being applauded." She shivers at the thought. "It's out of control."

She struggles for an answer, however, as to what accounts for her own lengthy career. "It would take someone else to answer that because I can't see why. I really don't know. Maybe I want it more, maybe my heart's more involved in it. It's really tough and you have to really want to be in this; otherwise you say, 'You know what? I think I've had enough.'

"As far as I can tell, I've never been here because I wanted to make money; I've never been someone who just cleaned up. I've never been in it for any other reason than I just flat out love acting. Bottom line, I'd rather act than eat. If you don't feel that way about what you do, then your legs are easily knocked out from under you. It's like a cake--take all the frills off the cake, and if you're not there because you like that cake, you won't want to stay."

Much the same applies in everyday life, adds Field, who is twice divorced and lives with her 8-year-old son, Sam, an avowed Lakers fan. (Two sons from her first marriage, Peter, 25, and Elijah, 21, have moved out.)

"One of the good things that happens to you as you get older is you say, 'I'm just fine.' It's just miles in the saddle. When you've lived your life and tried to be productive and lived through all the scrapes and heartbreaks and ups and downs and being in a work you love and you're still here and still hoping to get better and aren't trying to hide from it all," she says.

"Miles in the saddle is a great thing. It's why all the poets write about the folly of youth, and love is wasted on the young, and all that stuff. Because you learn, without even knowing you've learned it. You still go through all the ups and downs but there's more a sense of history, and history can be very supportive."

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