20th Century Fox Film Corp/Courtesy Everett Collection; Scott Garfield/Disney General Entertainment Content via Getty Images; Sunset Boulevard/Getty Images
Sally Field exudes such a feisty, youthful charm that it’s hard to imagine it’s been 56 years since her star-making turn as a boy-crazed surfer in Gidget. On Nov. 6, the acting legend turns 75, so now is a great time to look back on her decades of fantastic roles, which have earned her two Oscars, three Emmys, two Golden Globes and a Tony nomination. Her performances have run the gamut from playful fun (Smokey and the Bandit, The Flying Nun) to deadly serious (Absence of Malice, The Glass Menagerie on Broadway), but no matter the role, Field’s good-natured warmth always shines through. Here, 10 of our favorites from Sally’s half-century on the screen — including the part we liked most, inspired by her infamous Oscar acceptance speech: “And I can’t deny the fact that you like me. Right now, you like me!” Sound off below in the comments with any of your top picks that didn’t make the cut.
10: Brothers & Sisters (2006-2011)
The plot: If you’re a fan of This Is Us or Thirtysomething, you’ll love this soapy family drama, which ran for five seasons on ABC and followed the Walker clan through the highs and the very lows (PTSD, cancer, divorce, overdoses, war, fatal car accidents, an HIV diagnosis...). Field won an Emmy and a SAG Award for her role as Nora Walker, a mother of five grown children, who loses her husband (Tom Skerritt, 88) to a heart attack in the pilot and then quickly learns that he was hiding a number of secrets — of both the financial crimes and extramarital affair varieties.
The part we like: If you want to see how Field earned her Emmy, check out the Season 1 episode she submitted for consideration, “Mistakes Were Made (Part 2),” in which she finds out that her war-veteran son Justin (Dave Annable) has attempted suicide.
9: Hello, My Name Is Doris (2015)
The plot: Field makes magic out of her first leading role in nearly two decades, as a shy, 60-something woman who falls for a much younger new coworker at her office named John (played by Max Greenfield, who you might recognize from sitcoms The Neighborhood and New Girl). A bundle of eccentricities, Doris is a hoarder who loses herself in elaborate romantic daydreams, but her crush is never written off as a joke or something to be pitied, even when she turns to increasingly desperate schemes to attract John’s attention. It’s no wonder she got nominated for an AARP Movies for Grownups Award.
The part we like: You’ll love the camaraderie between Doris and her best friend Roz (Tyne Daly, 75) — and Roz’s 13-year-old granddaughter Vivian (Isabella Acres), who helps Doris with her romantic scheming.
8: Soapdish (1991)
The plot: Never before or since has Field had the chance to chew the scenery as gleefully as she did in this raucous farce about the behind-the-scenes dealings of a soap opera called The Sun Also Sets. No surprise: The off-screen drama is just as juicy as the show itself. Field stars as the insecure daytime diva Celeste Talbert, who must contend with an ambitious young rival (Cathy Moriarty, 60), a conniving producer (Robert Downey Jr., 56) and a killed-off former costar — and ex-lover (Kevin Kline, 74) — who is rescued from his stint in a Florida dinner theater to knock her off her game.
The part we like: In one of the film’s most memorable scenes, show writer Rose (Whoopi Goldberg, 65) takes Celeste to a mall in New Jersey so she can have her ego stroked by throngs of adoring fans.
7: Murphy’s Romance (1985)
The plot: In this charming romance from Norma Rae director Martin Ritt, divorced mother Emma Moriarty (Field) moves to a rural town in Arizona to become a horse trainer, and she soon begins an unlikely relationship with the town’s widowed pharmacist, Murphy Jones (James Garner). Garner earned the only Oscar nomination of his career for this performance, and you can see why the Academy would be smitten: It’s a simple, unflashy film starring two great actors with even greater chemistry.
The part we like: In a 2016 appearance on Bravo’s Watch What Happens Live, Field name-checked her Murphy’s Romance costar as the best kisser of her long career: “Best without a doubt is James Garner. I mean, he gets it.”
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6: Forrest Gump (1994)
The plot: Though she’s less than 10 years older than Tom Hanks, 65, Field exudes undeniable maternal warmth as Forrest Gump’s momma, doling out quotable wisdom such as, “You have to do the best with what God gave you” and “What’s normal anyways?” Early in the film, when she sleeps with the principal to keep Forrest in public school, you know that no matter what cruelties and indignities are thrown at our hapless hero, he’ll always have the unconditional loving support of his mother.
The part we like: Try not to get a lump in your throat as you remember the heartbreaking deathbed scene, in which Field delivers the now-iconic line, “Life is a box of chocolates, Forrest — you never know what you’re gonna get.”
Watch it: Forrest Gump on Apple TV
5: Lincoln (2012)
The plot: Field fought hard for her role in this Steven Spielberg (74) biopic, in which she starred as the emotionally fragile Mary Todd Lincoln, opposite Daniel Day-Lewis (64) as the Great Emancipator. She visited Mary Todd’s home, read her biographies, spoke to elderly Kentuckians to try to find the right dialect and packed on 25 pounds to match the First Lady’s measurements from dress fittings — she told NPR that it made her feel like “a pate de foie gras goose.” But the work paid off, landing Field her first Oscar nomination since her 1984 win.
The part we like: Field and Day-Lewis have incredible on-screen chemistry, but there’s an especially crackling energy to a brief scene in which the feisty First Lady verbally spars with the abolitionist congressman Thaddeus Stevens (Tommy Lee Jones, 75).
4: Steel Magnolias (1989)
The plot: You’ll laugh and cry in equal measure as you watch this feel-everything dramedy, set in a Louisiana beauty shop, with a flashy ensemble that includes Shirley MacLaine (87) and Dolly Parton (75). The true emotional heart of the film is the mother-daughter relationship between M’Lynn Eatenton (Field) and her daughter Shelby (Julia Roberts, 54), who lives with type 1 diabetes and puts her life at risk when she decides to have children.
The part we like: M’Lynn’s graveside breakdown is one of cinema’s great tear-jerking scenes.
3: Sybil (1976)
The plot: After an early career marked by fun-loving hits like Gidget and The Flying Nun, Field proved she could really act with this two-part made-for-TV movie that won her an Emmy. Sybil tells the true story of a young substitute teacher who seeks the guidance of psychiatrist Dr. Cornelia B. Wilbur (Joanne Woodward, 91) when she begins experiencing blackouts and memory lapses. They soon find out that Sybil has been coping with her traumatically abusive childhood by developing dissociative identity disorder. From an acting point of view, that translates to Field being able to flex her muscle playing more than a dozen different “alters,” including the infant Ruthie, the sophisticated Vickie and the death-obsessed Marcia.
The part we like: The scene in which Sybil is introduced to her other personalities is particularly moving.
Watch it: Sybil, on Amazon Prime
2: Places in the Heart (1984)
The plot: Field won her second Oscar for this Depression-era melodrama about a Texas widow named Edna Spalding, who must fight to keep her kids and her 40-acre farm after her sheriff husband is accidentally killed. Faced with myriad obstacles, including deadly tornadoes, money problems and the KKK, Edna is helped by her sister Margaret (Lindsay Crouse, 73), a blind boarder (John Malkovich, 67) and a drifter named Moze (Danny Glover, 75), who teaches her how to grow cotton.
The part we like: The stirring final scene, set during communion at a church service, is a thing of quiet beauty, but we won’t spoil it for you if you haven’t seen the movie.
1: Norma Rae (1979)
The plot: Field put her trademark pluck to its best use yet as an unexpected working-class heroine, earning her first Oscar in the process. The textile mill where single mom Norma Rae Webster (Field) toils away every day is a brutal place of drudgery, bad pay and terrible working conditions. When she hears an electrifying speech by a New York union organizer named Reuben (Rob Leibman), she springs into action. Soon she’s rallying her fellow workers and bringing together Black and white employees at her house as she fights to unionize the factory — much to the chagrin of her new husband, Sonny (Beau Bridges, 79). The resulting film was so inspirational that it landed at number 16 on AFI’s 100 Years … 100 Cheers list, with Norma Rae herself clocking in at number 15 on its list of cinema’s greatest heroes.
The part we like: Who can forget the iconic image of Field standing on a table holding up her homemade “UNION” sign?
Watch it: Norma Rae, on Apple TV
Nicholas DeRenzo is a contributing writer who covers entertainment and travel. Previously he was executive editor of United Airlines’ Hemispheres magazine and his work has appeared in the New York Times, Conde Nast Traveler, Travel & Leisure, Sunset and New York magazine.