04/17/2010 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

The Field of Sally: What One Oscar-Winner's Work Tells Us About America

Full Disclosure: I'm a big fan of Sally Field. Not only does she look strikingly like my little sister, but she almost got into a limo I was driving (during a blizzard) in 1982. I was waiting for Hume Cronyn and Jessica Tandy at the Broadway theater where they'd just performed in a play called Firefox, and Sally Field had just seen the show. There were some other limos behind me, and Sally asked if I was her driver. No, I nodded sadly. She gave me the brightest smile. We had a "moment."

Not that she was even on my mind when I was channel-surfing the other night. I was thinking about those crazy Tea Partiers, specifically, trying to figure out what exactly the America they insist they wanted "back" looked like. That's when I happened upon the answer in the most unexpected place: an airing of the late 80s chestnut Steel Magnolias.

The movie takes place in a large southern town. The central family is the Eatentons -- consisting principally of M'Lynn (Sally Field), Drum (Tom Skerritt), Shelby ( Julia Roberts) -- and two brothers. They live in a nice big house and can afford a very pleasant wedding. The family is by no means wealthy, but the doomed Shelby's medical bills don't seem to be an issue. Money isn't a serious concern for anyone, in fact. Blacks and gays live pretty much offscreen. All of the characters are kind, supportive and feisty. Despite the fact that it takes place in the south, no one's fat or alcoholic. People go to church and did I mention they were all white?

The more I watched this pleasant portrayal of Reagan-era Louisiana, the more it struck me that this was the version of America the far right would like us to think is about to be lost to the impending imposition of Obama/Pelosi socialism. Oddly, this idea comforted me. However divorced this depiction is from the present reality of most American lives, if the Tea Partiers honestly believe this is the kind of country they are fighting for, at least their motives seem a bit more understandable to me.

I started to wonder how well some of Sally Field's other work might apply to different paradigms of American political life. It didn't take long for me to consider "Brothers and Sisters" as the fun-mirror equivalent to Steel Magnolias. Except for the token conservatives represented by Kitty (Calista Flockhart) and her laughably unobstructionist Republican Senator husband, (Rob Lowe) -- the rest of the cast is unabashedly liberal. There's the son who served in Iraq and is in recovery; the gay lawyer-brother who wants to have a kid with his lover, the divorcee entrepreneur who represents the harried working mother; and the good brother turned bad who the writers don't seem to know quite what to do with. They all gather in this fabulous Pasadena house to do what liberals evidently love to do; argue and drink prodigious amounts of wine. (You'd think the writers would realize that's why they argue so much.)

The Walkers have more in common with the Steel Magnolians than not. They don't seem to suffer genuine financial hardship, and place family and friendship above all. Still, I doubt anyone in the Walker family would want to trade places with anyone in the Eatenton family, and vice versa. (Except Tom Skerritt, who is I just realized plays Sally Field's husband in both SM and BS).

To find the America which almost all on either side of the political divide imagine themselves heir to, we have to go back to "Places in the Heart." In it, Sally Field plays a young widow in East Texas during the Depression. She does whatever she must to keep her family together, including taking in boarders, picking cotton until her fingers bleed, even standing up to the Klan for the black man who has taught her how to farm. Does anyone on any side of the political spectrum watch this movie without thinking: "Yes, that's what I would have done."

I believe that almost all Americans have an aspirational view of the country and their place in it that is far more similar than we imagine. We all want an economic structure that somehow doesn't impede our capacity to grow a business and make a little money, whether it's Dolly Parton's hair salon or the Walkers' Ojai Foods. We all believe in hard work, personal responsibility, taking care of family, being good to friends. No one likes high taxes, big government, dirty air, malpractice suits, or filing bankruptcy due to medical bills. Liberals may think conservative policies lead to a "Norma Rae" nation; Republicans may think Democratic policies prevent the return to a wholesome "Gidget" society; but everyone wants to avoid a country that looks like "Sybil."

Admittedly, I land on the left side of the political fence. But I do think I can -- we all can -- be willing to impute a little less bad faith to the other side. Call me "Forrest Gump," but don't we all agree that there are certain descriptives we'd like to hear employed in relation to both ourselves and our country? Kindness. Humor. Grace. (All traits I think are embodied by Sally Field, or at least her characters.)

We will never agree on how to get there, but let's at least agree on the basic outlines of what "there" looks like.