Review: ‘In Pieces,’ by Sally Field
The title of Sally Field’s memoir, “In Pieces,” comes from a doctor who said that Field’s life was a bunch of separate pieces she needed to assemble. But it could just as easily refer to the book itself: chunks that never form a coherent narrative.
She doesn’t get to it for more than 100 pages, but the best stuff is Field’s writing about acting. Right after high school, she snagged the title role in the 1965 sitcom “Gidget,” and that’s when “In Pieces” begins to find its rhythm, largely because her career provides a theme for the book: She longed to be taken seriously, but “Gidget” and follow-up sitcom “The Flying Nun” made her an industry joke.
Field’s writing is often disorganized and baffling. (“Everywhere he went he left behind the impression of a very handsome man, whether anyone in the room thought he was or not.” Huh?) But she writes with passion about the day when, after a breakdown on the set of “The Flying Nun,” co-star Madeleine Sherwood dragged Field to the Actors Studio, to a class for working performers.
Field learned her craft there, long before the rest of Hollywood caught up with her talent, and it’s thrilling to get her point of view on finding and honing her skills, even if she omits the names of the other famous actors who were her classmates.
The pieces of her life, though, remain puzzling, especially in the memoir’s rushed conclusion, which zips through four decades in fewer than 40 pages. Many key moments are barely mentioned (the 1994 film “Forrest Gump”) or ignored (her stage work, her “You like me, you really like me” Oscar speech for 1984’s “Places in the Heart”) as Field tries to make peace with her dying mother, whom she loves but resents for not protecting her from abusive stepfather Jock Mahoney.
Like diary entries presented semi-chronologically, the book’s pieces just hang there, especially when it comes to men: passing out while smoking hash with songwriter Jimmy Webb (“By the Time I Get to Phoenix”) and then awakening with him “on top of me, grinding away,” an encounter she describes and never mentions again. Field characterizes Burt Reynolds as a jerk who tricked her into being his servant but doesn’t explore why she gravitated toward men who used her. Second husband Alan Greisman, to whom she was married for a decade, gets only a paragraph.
Field notes that she worked on the book for more than seven years, and there are signs this 400-page memoir was once much longer, particularly in the hasty finale and drawn-out opening. (“Let’s hear a lot more about your grandma, Sally” is a phrase no one has ever said, except, apparently, her publisher.)
It’s also possible that the gifts of an actor and biographer compete with each other. Creating a character, Field must be single-minded and ruthlessly focused on analyzing her own needs and wants, to the exclusion of others. But, as a biographer, we’d like her to provide context, to make an effort to understand what drove some people who are not named Sally Field.
Obviously, there is inherent selfishness in writing an autobiography — we expect Field to place herself at the center — but the book is curious about other people only when they have a direct impact on the author, which leaves “In Pieces” feeling like this by-all-accounts generous performer has written a surprisingly ungenerous book.
Chris Hewitt is a features writer and theater critic for the Star Tribune. • 612-673-4367