Friday, November 12, 2010

Forgive me, Father, I ticked off the Flying Nun

Actress Sally Field has won two Oscars and three Emmys, but what many people most remember about her is that endearing 1984 Best Actress Academy Awards acceptance speech for Places in the Heart, that touched on the cornerstone of all our insecurities.

"I haven't had an orthodox career, and I've wanted more than anything to have your respect," said Field, whose career began in the 1960s television series Gidget and The Flying Nun, but had then taken a remarkable turn with an Oscar for Norma Rae in 1979. "The first time I didn't feel it, but this time I feel it, and I can't deny the fact that you like me, right now, you like me!"

Photo of Sally Field by Andy Holzman, L.A. Daily News
The speech has become a classic, sometimes misremembered as "You like me. You really like me!" It was mocked by Sean Penn in his 1996 acceptance of the Independent Spirit Award for Best Male Lead in Dead Man Walking as, "You tolerate me. You really tolerate me!" And it will live for eternity, on the Internet at least, on YouTube.

Entertainment reporters who have followed Field's career say privately that, after several years of having that speech brought up to her, she began to noticeably tire of it. Others who attended a San Fernando Valley entertainment function a few years ago recall that she was visibly unhappy at having the moment relived publicly yet another time.

On Friday, she was surprisingly more than visibly unhappy at having that speech again resurrected -- dredged up, she must have thought, from the way she answered a seemingly innocent question.

Field was at her old high school in the Valley to be honored with a performing arts auditorium dedicated in her honor. There, in an interview minutes before the ceremony, I remarked to her about how wonderful such an honor must be, coming at your old high school where all of us as teenagers struggled with issues of whether we were popular or liked and that certainly her "You like me" Oscar speech touched on that. Did she now feel some validation?

Even before I finished the question, I could see her jaw stiffen and a glare in her eyes.

"You know what? You're probably a wonderful reporter, but that's the most illy-conceived question I ever heard," she said. "I don't know how to answer that. You know that statement that I made, you don't have an article long enough to put everything that that was about. It certainly wasn't about being popular or being liked. It was about your work. It was about your work..."

Whoa! Had I touched a nerve or what?

"What did you say to her?" one of the news photographers who had been shooting her wanted to know as the interview ended abruptly. You could tell she was furious when her publicist led her away, and minutes later I tried to approach her again and saw that she was still miffed.

But my illy-conceived question may have been on her mind when she spoke to an auditorium full of students at Birmingham Community Charter High School because in her apparent off-the-cuff remarks she essentially answered it.

"Honestly, I never felt that I was popular, not at all -- as a matter of fact, I didn't feel like I fit in at all," said Field, who graduated from what was then Birmingham High School in 1964. "I had a group of girlfriends who kept kicking me out of the club. Honestly and earnestly kicking me out of the club.

"I think it's the kinds of things you identify with. I was confused. I was, a lot of the times, shy. I was unfocused and found it very hard to concentrate."

Her salvation, Field said, was the school's drama department.

"I lived and breathed in the drama department. It quite simply saved my life," Field said. "It was my place, my refuge, my playground. It was my reason for going to school...

"It was where I lost myself and found me."

A different generation of students gave the 64-year-old actress, producer and director a standing ovation, accepting her as one of their own, even if some were only vaguely familiar with her work as an Oscar winner and three-time Emmy recipient as well.

"I know she's famous," said 15-year-old sophomore Luis Morata siting in the second row. "Wasn't she Forrest Gump's mother?"