Sally Field knows that when people think of her, one of the first things that comes to mind is her acceptance speech at the 1985 Academy Awards. When Field won her second Oscar for the drama Places in the Heart, the actress, then 38, ecstatically declared, “I can’t deny the fact that you like me, right now, you like me!” At 70 years old, Field is once again generating awards buzz for her performance in the indie comedy My Name Is Doris (available now on VOD). In a conversation with The Hollywood Reporter’s ‘Awards Chatter’ podcast, she explained what was going through her head in that unforgettable moment, and why she feels it’s been taken “out of context” by decades of references, parodies, and misquotes.
Watch Sally Field’s 1985 Oscar acceptance speech:
As Field explained over the course of a long conversation with podcast host Scott Feinberg, her career as an actress — beginning at age 12 — was riddled with personal and professional setbacks. “Nothing has ever been easy for me,” said Field. In spite of her many awards and commercial successes, Field was forced into roles she didn’t want (like the sitcom The Flying Nun, foisted on her by her manipulative stepfather), fought hard for her best parts (like Norma Rae, in which she was cast over the studio’s objections), and often felt like she wasn’t pretty or accomplished enough to be a film star. Over the years, one of the coping mechanisms Field developed was to live “in a fog,” tuning out the rest of the world and her own emotions to deal with the work in front of her. That’s how she described the experience of winning her first Oscar, for playing a union activist in Norma Rae.
“[Winning the Oscar] was so huge to me… that I almost just went back to a place where I survived as a kid, and that is, I just was in a bubble, I was in a fog, I tuned out,” she explained. “I couldn’t feel it. I didn’t allow myself to feel it. It was just like, get through it. So I didn’t own it.”
Part of that reaction was how vulnerable Field felt to Hollywood’s constant criticism; she was afraid to enjoy the moment because she knew she could get torn down again. “The tough part of this business is that you get your soul, your self, your person, thrashed, examined and tossed out… It becomes a real challenge to pick yourself up and dust yourself off,” she said.
Six years later, when she was nominated for the Depression-era drama Places in the Heart, Field made a decision that if she won, she would stop being afraid and allow herself a moment of victory. “If you get pieces of the good, of the accomplishment, then you have to allow yourself to feel it. Otherwise all you feel is the negative, is the beat up part, is the trashing part… and some part of you will close up shop,” she said. “So I just said to myself, ‘I’m going to feel this, I’m gonna feel it, whatever it is.'”
She did win the Oscar for Best Actress (beating out Judy Davis, Vanessa Redgrave, Sissy Spacek, and Jessica Lange), but was thrown for a curve when she got onstage: For the first time that year, the producers had decided to flash a light in winners’ faces as a warning that their speech time was coming to an end. “Now they play the orchestra, they try to be gentle. But [then] they had a huge, red, glaring light that started flashing in your face,” Field recalled. “So it was like, ‘Aaa!’ It was like the police are coming after you, you know? So I panicked. I went, ‘Oh, I’ve gone on too long!’ I said nothing… and I had to get off.”
Field didn’t know exactly what she’d said, and worried that she’d squandered her time onstage. “I remember the part of me that said, ‘But you didn’t say anything that mattered. You didn’t say anything genuine,’” she said. Little did she know that it would become one of the most-quoted acceptance speeches of all time (although it’s most often misquoted as, “You like me, you really like me!”) Looking back, Field explains that she was trying to describe the fleeting experience of being at the top of her field, knowing that she’d been on the bottom and might be again. (The full conclusion of her speech is: “I haven’t had an orthodox career, and I’ve wanted more than anything to have your respect. The first time I didn’t feel it, but this time I feel it — and I can’t deny the fact that you like me, right now, you like me.”)
“How do you verbalize this one moment in time? ‘I did it?’ That doesn’t work. ‘I accomplished what I needed to accomplish?’ That doesn’t work. It sounds like I’m trying to invent penicillin or something,” Field said with a laugh. “How do you describe what it is, that this communication is between audience and actor? And that’s how it came out.”
That earnest, vulnerable moment became the butt of countless jokes over the years. Madonna (the opposite of earnest) did her own version, as did Jim Carrey in The Mask. Field herself has joined in the fun, parodying the speech in Legally Blonde 2 and a Charles Schwab commercial. And one could argue that Field created an opening for such delightfully giddy Oscar speech-makers as Cuba Gooding Jr. and Julia Roberts. But it still makes her sad that the immediate reaction to her speech was ridicule. “An interesting item in the world, certainly for me, is how easily people want to trash that emotion or ridicule it or misquote it and make fun of it,” she told THR. “And what it really is is raw emotion.”
Watch a video about the shortest speeches in Oscar history: