Published May 31, 1991|Updated Oct. 13, 2005

Like Shirley Temple, actress Sally Field may have made her fortune on dimples and apple cheeks, but being known as a middle-age Betty Boop can get old. Fast. "Absolutely not. I don't feel like America's sweetheart," says Field, 44, currently the star of the soap-opera spoof Soapdish, which opens today.

In Soapdish, Field slaps some steel into those dimples to play Celeste Talbert, a combination of Alexis Carrington and Erica Kane. For years, Celeste has been the reigning queen of the soap The Sun Also Sets, with her loyal head writer Rose Schwartz (Whoopi Goldberg) constantly coming up with bizarre scenarios to showcase Celeste's talent.

Trouble is, her fellow soapsters are fed up with Celeste hogging the limelight. With the help of callow producer, David Barnes (Robert Downey, Jr.) and Celeste's former stud puppy Jeffrey Anderson (Kevin Kline), the vampy Montana Moorehead (Cathy Moriarty) conspires to relieve Celeste of her crown.

While Field toes the party line, saying that making Soapdish was "loads of fun," she does admit that playing the over-the-hill TV star was not all Nolan Miller gowns and lip gloss.

"The overly emotional side of Celeste who is so pitiful offstage, a low puddle who feels nobody loves her _ that's the dark side of me," she said. "Kevin and I felt we were revealing so much of ourselves, only exaggerated. There's that side of Kevin, so concerned about the way he looks, always playing with his hair. We beat them down, control those sides of ourselves. But they are still there."

Field has the reputation of wanting always to be in control, going way back from her days on TV as Gidget and The Flying Nun and continuing through her "serious" years as the Emmy-award-winning Sybil and in movies Stay Hungry, Steel Magnolias, Punchline, Backroads, Heroes and Smokey and the Bandit parts I and II (the latter with former flame Burt Reynolds).

Her fierce insistence on total concentration, so she can be an actress with a capital "A," was most evident on Norma Rae and Places in the Heart, which earned her Academy Awards.

In Soapdish, there was to be a scene where Celeste clutches her daytime Emmy and blurts "You like me! You really like me!" a joke on Field's notorious feel-good Oscar speech for Places, but Field had it taken out.

"I can be crabby on sets. Once in awhile people see me and call out "Here comes Norma Rae.' After that, they're usually on their way out," she jokes.

Soapdish director Michael Hoffman says he cast Field for the emotional baggage she brings to the screen. "The idea of Sally, as America's sweetheart showing the dark side of her cuteness _ a brittle and neurotic woman _ is irresistible."

Field says she has relaxed a little through the years, which she cracks is like now running on eight cylinders instead of 10. This less-intense Field is perhaps due to a happy marriage to producer Alan Greisman and motherhood at 40. With Greisman, Field has a son, Sam, now 3, as well as two sons, 21 and 19, from a previous marriage.

"We don't leave anything on the set," she said. "We take it all home. But it's terrific."

Soapdish came about out of Steel Magnolias. Bobby Harling (who wrote Steel Magnolias) penned the original draft of Soapdish as a way to do another project with Field.

"We were sitting around the set and Bobby came up with the character of Celeste Talbert _ somebody really crabby and not nice, who would pick on the little guy or somebody who couldn't fight back," Field recalls, noting "Celeste's a creation of a person that I'm not _ totally. The key to Celeste was realizing she's the type person who cries at everything. She's either furious or happy. Everything's an extreme with her."

Nolan Miller, costume designer to the day and nighttime soap stars who did the hooty costumes for the movie, describes Celeste as "a combination of Blanche DuBois and Dolly Parton."

Field says that once she got into the spirit of Celeste, she enjoyed the experience. "The primary colors, the mambo music _ that was all Michael. He played mambo music all the time on the set. At first we were baffled, but then we realized the music was the level of energy we had to achieve."

Hoffman instructed Field to watch Pedro Almodovar's whacked-out Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown, George Cukor's The Women and Doris Day's Pillow Talk for inspiration.

She also drew from her own life. "'I was a soap opera freak for 20 years. Since my first son was born, and I had to stay home and take care of him, I was addicted to One Life to Live, All My Children and General Hospital. Now I don't get to watch them like I used to. When I can catch up it's like going to the Golden Door for a day," she says.

As much as a devotee as Field professes to be, she swears she could never appear on a soap. "Can you see me as the next Erica Kane?"

Field agreed to the madness of Soapdish because she always wanted to do a movie about actors. "Because what we do is so insane. Actors take themselves so seriously. I was worried at first about the way we portrayed actors _ as vain, silly and selfish. But then we thought "People like to laugh at actors. So let's let them.'


She had to ask herself why it was so simple for her to play a bad soap opera actress. "It was oddly easy. The hardest thing was not to crack up, especially at times like when Cathy Moriarty comes down the stairs, looks at me and says, "Hi, Mom.' Everybody thought it was so funny _ except me."

Field acknowledges that soap opera acting is thought of as one step above turning letters on Wheel of Fortune, but she says making Soapdish allowed her to gain respect for what those actors go through every day.

"I know it's thought of as second-rate and kind of hammy, but generally, some of it is pretty good. The really talented ones go on to film and nighttime TV." Examples of those who did include Kathleen Turner and Christopher Reeve.

Field also insisted on a very un-soap-like thing: two weeks of rehearsal. Hoffman says the focus of the rehearsals was to decide on the acting style of the soap opera vs. reality and to come up with material.

"Sally was very willing to improvise. I loved coming up with things with her. We totally improvised during rehearsals the scene where Sally instructs me on how to be a father, using actor's terminology," Kline adds.

Field says the acting exercise was scary. "We were so far out there we weren't sure where the bottom was. You just have to jump _ can't worry about how you look. . . .

"I tell you, I feel saferplaying a Depression mother in Texas. With drama, it's more shaded, some aspects can work while others don't and it's still okay. With comedy, there are no gray areas. Either you laugh or you don't."

The broad physical comedy appealed to Field. "We were all bruised and sore, especially me.Whoopi had to hold me in the air forthree days. She had great triceps by the end of the shooting. I was extremely sore and bruised."

particularly after the scene where I had to hang from a drainpipe. I kept shouting: I have no upper body strength!' "

With Soapdish wrapped up, Field has to turn her attention to scaring up another project. "I have never had an easy day finding work," she says.

To that end, Field formed her own production company _ Fogwood _ and produced Surrender and Murphy's Romance.

At present, Fogwood is juggling 10 projects. "Goldie (Hawn) and I have been looking to do something together for a long time."

Meanwhile, she's doing the first production in which she doesn't star, Dying Young with Julia Roberts and Campbell Scott, a dying swan romance that comes out June 21.

"I like acting and producing at the same time. You have more control. You're right in there."

But being a control freak caught up with Field during the shooting of Soapdish and Dying Young. "We filmed both at the same time. I felt like Sybil. It was difficult and frustrating."

Another recent Fogwood production was Not Without My Daughter, a story about a woman and her child held hostage in Iran by her husband, a newly converted religious fanatic. The film came out during the Gulf war and bombed. She has high hopes for the video release.

Field was the victim of terrorist threats herself during the tense time of Not Without My Daughter's release and had to employ a bodyguard. "It was a scary experience, but a little absurd. I mean, what terrorist would want his claim to fame being that he killed Sally Field?"

Jayne Blanchard is movie critic for the Journal Newspapers of suburban Washington, D.C.