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Although hers is the only Hollywood face in the room, Sally Field slaps a name tag on her black sweater-vest. "Off I go to mingle," she says. On this heat-stricken September morning in Dallas the actress is the main draw at a $250-a-plate Sunday brunch for State Sen. Lloyd Doggett, the underdog Democratic candidate for the U.S. Senate. Since Sally knows about being an underdog she has offered her assistance. Some brunchers see this as a case of "Gidget Goes Political," even though Field's notorious TV credit lasted all of one season 19 years ago. Since then a new generation has discovered Gidget on cable. Reports one mother to Field: "Girls call each other up and say, 'Did you like her hair today, or did you like it better yesterday?' "

Bemused, Sally reaches for an orange juice and consolation from producer Alan Greisman—"my fella," she calls him—her first serious romance since Burt Reynolds. But another hand intercepts hers and out comes an Instamatic. Sally Field obeys an old habit: She obliges. But her compromises these days have their limits. When Doggett announces that he and Field are traveling to Galveston, Texas for a rally that afternoon, he says, "I'm flying there with Norma Rae, not the Flying Nun." To which Sally, on the sidelines, snaps, "Good!"

Like Edna Spalding, the heroine of her much praised new drama, Places in the Heart, which was shot in nearby Waxahachie, Field has crusaded onscreen and off to fight and right other people's misperceptions about her. For Sally, 37, perkiness has been a pestilence. Her pilgrimage from being darling on TV to being daring in films has exacted a heavy emotional toll that she could only recently tally.

Although she still looks like a celebration of the endless summer, she talks like someone who has weathered her share of winters. "I've always been an angry person," says this symbol of '60s innocence. "Looking the way I did and acting the way I did, the posture that I held for years was of a helpless little victim. I asked for it, but it still made me furious inside." Although some critics have predicted that Places in the Heart may bring her another Oscar, Field contends that it has already won her something more important—the war within herself. "It was like this enormous cloud was lifted," she says.

Field credits Edna Spalding, the Depression-era widow, with precipitating this psychic change. "It sounds so bizarre," admits Sally, whose conversation comes peppered with italics. "She changed my vision of myself. For the past four years I found myself being the kind of person who said, 'I don't want anybody. I don't need anybody.' I was sort of chanting that subconsciously to myself, like the little engine that could." But playing the ever-loving Edna, Field confronted her own fear of affection. "Edna opened me up," she says. "I found that people are meant to need one another. I've spent most of my life saying 'Oh, no they're not!' "

Inadvertently Edna played matchmaker too. Although Field's dates over the last few years have included Johnny Carson and Kevin Kline, she says, "I don't think I was conscious of it, but my vibrations were 'Just leave me alone.' Edna made me ready to be involved with someone in my life." Enter producer Greisman, 37, who previously dated model Lisa Taylor. Sally had first noticed him while having lunch at a restaurant two years ago. "We had seen each other quite literally across a crowded room," says Field, "and I wanted to know who he was. He knew I noticed him and I knew he noticed me, but that's sort of the way it stayed."

Until Greisman brought a project to Field's fledgling production company five months ago. After the first meeting, recalls Sally's production partner, Laura Ziskin, "I said, 'Sally, you were so good, you didn't flirt or anything.' " But soon after, Greisman sent a follow-up letter with a dinner invitation, which has led to living together and may lead to a December wedding, according to friends. Although Field isn't publicly conceding that likelihood, she acknowledges, "For the first time in my life, something feels right in this area."

For Field, Places in the Heart offered an opportunity to excavate her more distant past as well. "What was on the line for her this time was her own history," says Places director Robert Benton. Although Field was born in Pasadena after her family migrated en masse to California from Texas, "We talked like Southern folk," she says. "We ate like Southern folk, and all the traditions were Southern." So was the prevailing concept of womanhood. "They felt that to be truly women and attractive, they had to be frail and ladylike and trembling," she recalls. "My grandmother is as strong as they get, but you wouldn't know it at first if you sat and talked to her."

When Sally was about 4, Margaret Field, a Paramount contract player, divorced her husband, Richard, a drugstore owner. With her older brother, Rick, Sally went to live at her grandmother's—until her mother married stuntman and movie Tarzan Jock Mahoney. Out of the feminine positions of her mother and the macho ones struck by her stepfather, Sally forged the outlook that propelled her—a constant face-off between guilt and guile, bawling and brawling, help me and to hell with you. "Sally told me once," says Places co-star Lindsay Crouse, "that somewhere along the line, her father's work as a stuntman made an enormous impression on her. She felt she always had to be unafraid. There's an awful lot in her that says she has something to prove."

But in places in the heartland, other images persist. At the late-afternoon outdoor rally around the grounds of Seawolf Park in Galveston, Sally circulates among down-home Democrats who might be the siblings of Norma Rae or the offspring of Edna Spalding. But even among the faithful, Field's history hounds her. Says a woman in a chaise longue to her daughter: "You remember her—from Burt and the Bandit!"

As Sally goes to work signing autographs, a middle-aged man pops—or rather, plops—the question:

"How's Burt?" he asks.

"I don't see too much of him anymore," she replies, a slice of ice in her voice before she walks away.

Abashed, the hangdog offender turns for comfort to his female companion. "Gee, I guess I shouldn't have asked her," he says.

If you want to know how Sally Field feels about the glamorous life, you need to know about the outdoor Christmas lights that are still up on her house. "And the ski racks are still on my car," she says with a sigh. Unlike her Beverly Hills colleagues, Sally prefers the other side of the mountain, the suburban sanctuary of the San Fernando Valley where she grew up. "I was never drawn to live in Beverly Hills," she says. "I feel more comfortable with a basketball court in the driveway." If her residence were elegant, "I'd feel like I was just waiting to go home all the time," she adds. After all, this is a 37-year-old woman who wears a ponytail of her own volition.

Field's home in Tarzana, Calif. is a middle-American dream house: two kids, one golden retriever named Rupert, a forsaken fluorescent-orange football at rest in the landscaped front yard. In the two-car garage sits a BMW with the license plate INSTNKS.

Being average made Field an ambassador of adolescence in her youth. At 17, she was signed for Gidget. "I had my own TV series, and I had never been on an airplane," she says. Off camera, she played the all-American girl just as convincingly. At 21, she married Steve Craig, her childhood sweetheart, and the couple had two sons, Peter, now 14, and Eli, 12. But after several seasons as The Flying Nun, she came to consider both her TV career and her marriage at a dead end. She fired her agent and was divorced from her husband. In the 1976 mini-series Sybil, Field played a woman afflicted with multiple personalities. Her performance won her an Emmy and drove a stake through Gidget's heart.

Hollywood, however, still didn't take Field seriously. After making Smokey and the Bandit with Reynolds in 1977, she graduated to being a movie commodity. But when the onscreen romance became an offscreen reality, she also became a tabloid commodity. Her finest triumph required her hardest sell. Only after Jane Fonda, Jill Clay-burgh, Marsha Mason and Diane Keaton turned down the role of Norma Rae did director Martin Ritt persuade 20th Century-Fox to gamble on Field. The character's temper and the actress's temperament combined to bring Field a 1979 Oscar. "Norma Rae was driven out of fury," she says. "And that's something I understand." According to Ritt: "She's like all the good ones. She's a tiger."

Field's divorce years before had left her with "a floundering feeling that I was defined in terms of what man I was with, and who the heck was I, and if I wasn't dressing for him, then whom was I dressing for?" The breakup with Reynolds brought some of those sensations to the surface again. It also resurrected another unpleasant but familiar public image: Sally as helpless little victim.

"If anybody wants it on the record, I'll just say right now I wasn't—most assuredly, was not," she says, her voice rising. "That's built on images and clichés. I don't think there was any victim." Her contact with Reynolds is cordial now, but long-distance. "We're friends," she maintains. "We're not enemies."

In the aftermath of the Reynolds romance, she dumped the stand-by-your-man philosophy that she had inherited from her mother's generation. Now, says Sally, "I don't want to play any role unless it's one I choose to play onscreen. I don't want to feel I have to obey anybody else's rules except my own. It's taken me a long time to say to a guy, 'I'd laugh at that joke but it's not funny.' " With Alan she has achieved a delicate balance. "He was ready and I was ready, and we're just having a good time—or something."

In matters of the heart, her adolescent sons have helped her maintain her perspective. "They used to say to me, 'Mother, it's not the guy we mind. It's you. You act weird. He's all right. It's you who's gotta go.' " They have adjusted easily to her current relationship. "When Alan came around, Peter said that I'm so much happier. They never responded well to any of this before. So it seemed everybody was ready."

For Field, bringing up two sons has always meant living with the feeling that she was letting someone down. "I've always been tremendously, like nauseatingly, responsible," she says. "You know, it's a way of making myself feel important. I don't think there's any working mother in this country who doesn't feel like she's letting someone down, because they're either waiting for you at the office or the kids want to eat dinner."

In Sally's case she has the care and counsel of her mother, who stays with the boys when Field is working out of town. Their father, Steve, lives nearby. Field shouldn't have to fret, but she does. "Lots of times my kids say that I'm rushing around and swearing that dinner's not ready yet, and they're saying, 'We're not even hungry.' I realize in some way I'm doing all this for my own image of what I want to be rather than what's really required of me."

Sally's sons have inherited their mother's indifference to glitz, and they moonlight as her films' most acerbic critics. Observes Field: "They have no qualms about saying, 'It's a turkey, Mother. Everyone hates it. All the kids at school come up and say, "Have you seen that rotten movie?" ' " The syndication of Gidget on cable has given Peter and Eli fresh ammunition—and their mother pause. In fact, when Field even talks about the show, she begins to sound like her 1965 alter ego. "Friends of mine who have teenage daughters are finding Gidget," she says with a sigh. "I say, 'Are you kidding me? This is like really crazy!' My boys look at it, and I have to leave the room for the ridicule I take. They say, 'Jeez, Mother, how you ever worked again we don't know.' "

After Places in the Heart Sally faces a new frontier, producing. Her recently formed company, Fogwood Films, has a slate of projects with starring roles fashioned for Field. Unlike the trek from TV to films, this is a trail she blazes reluctantly. "I was not one of those people who felt equipped in any way to do this," she contends. But at the insistence of her former lawyer, her agent and her publicist, she acquiesced. "At her first lunch with me she proceeded to tell me how she knew nothing about it," says partner Laura Ziskin, "but it became clear that, in fact, she knew very well. She had schooled herself in writers, projects and all kinds of details."

Despite herself, Sally Field is a mixture of impulsive first strikes and solicited second opinions. She doesn't take her cues from men anymore, but she does take them from the characters she plays. She requires a push into producing movies but not into politicking causes. She has an Oscar in her office at home and in her living room a pillow with an embroidered sampler. It reads, "True friendship comes when silence between two people is comfortable." If the collision of character traits sometimes makes her crazy and frustrated, it also makes her a movie star.

"You can't bring out qualities in an actress that she doesn't have as a person," her mentor Martin Ritt once observed. With typical self-effacement and considerable trouble, Sally describes her appeal: "I think there's something that seems sort of, you know, typical."

On the day that Places in the Heart opens and Vincent Canby of the New York Times declares it "one of the best films in years about growing up American," Sally Field does what mothers in Tarzana do: She drives her turn for the car pool. Then she goes to the market and the health-food store, reorganizes her household and picks up the kids. While making dinner and waiting for Alan to come home late that afternoon, she takes a call from New York and hears another rave review. "The heck with making dinner. I should get taken out," she jokes. "Come on, Mom," replies one skeptical son. "Don't be so cocky."

Once upon a time Sally Field felt like Cinderella. As a TV star, she was popular and talented and well known. But eventually she felt like Scarlett O'Hara, ready for a fight. She was popular and talented and well known for all the wrong reasons. For many years after that she imagined that Cinderella and Scarlett O'Hara were caught in combat within her. "I think somebody won," she says now. "I don't feel like Cinderella anymore, and I don't feel like Scarlett O'Hara anymore. I feel colors of them every now and then. But I think they got married and had a child and it's turned out to be me."