Sally Field Says Hollywood Is Still Ignoring Women

by Rachel Simon

After 53 years in Hollywood, Sally Field isn't one to beat around the bush, something she made all too clear when I spoke to her about her new film, Hello My Name is Doris . From the minute we start, she's all business, talking candidly but bluntly about her new movie; when the topic of this year's election comes up, she announces her reasons for supporting Hillary Clinton as the Democratic presidential nominee as though they're not opinions, but unequivocal facts. And when I ask her, early on, if she thinks the state of women in Hollywood is improving, I can practically hear her eyes rolling over the phone as she gives me a matter-of-fact "no."

"I have been a professional actor for 53 years. I’ve felt flurries — there was one time called the 'Year of the Woman' long before you were born. Oh, it was a big flurry," says Field. "But the proof is in the pudding, so we'll see. It isn’t about talk — it’s about projects. It’s about writers writing projects that involve women, that involve people of color, that involve younger and older and everything."

With stars like Jennifer Lawrence and Reese Witherspoon speaking out about Hollywood's gender inequality and developing their own projects, it finally feels like progress is being made for women in the film industry. Yet when I comment on such developments, Field quickly cuts me off, and says that when it comes to things truly changing for female actors, "I would be surprised if it does."

"Talk is cheap, you know?" She continues. "Yakety yakety yak... Pencils need to be put to paper, fingers need to be put to the computer... It’s really all about OK, now what?"

"Women, like they have to do in every arena, in every field, have to be so much better than the next guy."

Her answer is brusque, but it's warranted. Despite the improvements that have been made, the number of Hollywood movies starring women, especially those over 40, or, even 30, is abysmally low, with a 2015 Time analysis showing that the average 50-year-old female actor can expect to receive three roles per year, compared to the five a man of equal age would get. While the film industry is not kind to older actors of either gender, it's especially worse for women; as the Time report noted that, men, on average, reach the peak of their careers at age 46, but female actors' professional lives start heading downwards after age 30. Like with most subjects, Field hasn't been shy about discussing the industry's ageism, telling NPR recently that "the way I've dealt with it is just to keep my head down." To me, she says she simply goes "where the work is."

"There just aren’t a lot of leads for almost-70-year-olds," says Field, who's 69 years old. "It’s not like, 'all of these leading roles that have been in film for older women, why didn’t you do any of them?' There haven’t been a whole lot of them."

"I don’t want to do roles and movies just to be doing roles and movies," she continues. "I will go to television if there’s more interesting work there, or on stage if there’s more interesting work there... but over the last few years, there hasn't been, for me at least, interesting lead [movie] roles that I wanted to do."

It's not that she's shied away from movies completely; the last decade has seen Field play Aunt May in The Amazing Spider-Man and Mary Todd in Lincoln, for which she earned an Oscar nomination, among other parts. But by and large, Field says, the films she was offered before Doris, about a shy, eccentric woman who becomes infatuated with her much-younger co-worker, "weren’t anything I wanted to be a part of," full of half-developed female characters that didn't resemble real women. "It’s very hard to find a good project... every now and again, there’s a flurry of a couple films, be they for older women or even for younger women, that are interesting, character-driven pieces," she continues. "But they’re few and far between."

Although Field has acted as both director and producer during the course of her career, she's quick to tell me that working behind-the-scenes not something she wants to do. "I don’t want to go to the office every day and read coverage on things," she says. "I would rather go find a tiny play to do somewhere."

But she says that she's grateful for, and proud of, "the younger generation of actors" starting development companies and creating their own female-led projects, despite many of them receiving similar criticism that female stars in Field's generation did when they attempted to do the same. Says Field, "I hope that they are stronger than we were."

For now, she's optimistic. When I bring up the current investigation by the ACLU into Hollywood's lack of female directors, she is enthused and says, "That’s so good, that's an important thing to finally take a look at." Gender inequality behind-the-scenes has "always, always, always" gone on, Field says, but if the investigation means that filmmakers can't "just knock [women] off the list of potential directions, or off the list of potential writers, just because they’re women," then it's worthwhile.

But, as she says, nothing will change overnight; it is always an uphill battle for women in film, something that Field, whose first film role was in 1962, knows all too well. "Women, like they have to do in every arena, in every field, have to be so much better than the next guy," she says about acting in Hollywood. "They just can’t let anything slip between the cracks. They have to be so much better."

So Field is leading by example, working constantly but not settling for roles that demean her; when it feels like, with Doris, that she's making yet another comeback ("At this point, I have been rediscovered more times than oil," she jokes), it's simply her taking her career into a new direction. She refuses to let Hollywood's limits be her limits, something that every generation of women can definitely get behind.

Images: Caroline Wurtzel/Bustle via Getty Images; Roadside Attractions/Stage 6 (2)