Film & Television

Sally Field, Still Surprising at 69 in ‘Hello, My Name is Doris’

A 60-something woman who lives in an old house on Staten Island loses her ailing mother, whom she has devoted her whole adult life to caring for. She supports them both by taking the ferry to Manhattan where she works as an accountant doing data entry for a catalogue company. Oh, yes, and she’s a hoarder.

Not necessarily an enticing description for a wonderful comedy, is it? Add in the plot element that soon after her mother’s funeral this woman, Doris (Sally Field), meets “cute,” the company’s new art director, John (Max Greenfield), in an elevator and falls madly in love with him. Unfortunately, John is 30 years younger, and only embarrassment and heartbreak seem possible for Doris.

How do writer/director Michael Showalter and Sally Field manage to pull off this scenario, so full of possible squirm-inducing pitfalls and produce one of the sweetest (and funniest) romantic comedies in years? As the character of the producer in Shakespeare in Love said each time his production came together against all odds, “It’s a mystery.”

The alchemy may be mysterious, but Hello, My Name is Doris is well worth seeing for many reasons. First and foremost is the wonderful Sally Field. She was treated as a joke, or at least with much skepticism when she first made the jump from pedestrian TV — Gidget, and The Flying Nun, a character who could literally fly because of her large, winged wimple — to films. Even she was surprised when she won the Oscar for her dramatic performance in Norma Rae (1979). And when she won her second Academy Award, for Places in the Heart  (1984), she made a comment in her acceptance speech that has  become one of the most (unfairly) ridiculed remarks in Oscar history: “you like me, right now, you like me!”

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Sally Field soldiered on, handing in sterling performances in such notable films  as Steel Magnolias (1989) and Lincoln (2012) over the years. Even her return to TV in the drama Brothers and Sisters was widely praised. Now she shows yet another side to her range that is a real revelation: broad comedy. Though she did the excellent comedies Mrs. Doubtfire (1993) and Soapdish (1991), she did not let loose there like she does here. To win John over, Doris becomes a Facebook stalker with the aid of her best friend’s 13-year-old granddaughter, Vivian (Isabella Acres). She learns more about him, including his favorite bands. This leads to a hilarious sequence of scenes as she comes to appreciate, dance to, and most important adopt the style of a hip electronic music fan. While her presentation is eccentric at best — a mixed bag of thrift shop items — it is now seen by John and his friends as delightfully creative and edgy. Briefly, she becomes the darling of their crowd . . .  or is she more of a mascot?

The film plays with Doris’ point of view, sometimes lapsing into fantasy sequences involving John based on the romantic novels she favors. When snapped back to reality, she encounters the real John, who is actually warm and charming. From their very first encounter it is clear that John sees and treats Doris as a real person. You come to understand how rare that is when he inquires about her, even though colleagues who have worked beside her for years reveal that they have barely registered her. It is easy to see why she is attracted to him.

Why she is open to falling for him is part of the solid psychological underpinning of the character, and without this the movie would not have worked. As Doris opens up about herself to John, we learn that long ago she was engaged but when her fiancé was transferred out West she felt she couldn’t leave her needy mother. Her brother and his wife were perfectly happy to let her sacrifice her chance for an independent life, while he went on to college and built a business.

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Her mother’s death, however, opens up a new psychological flexibility for Doris. It is a universal phenomenon that mourning provides opportunities for growth and change. She is fortified in her efforts by a self-help guru, (a wonderful cameo spoof by Peter Gallagher), who encourages his followers with aphorisms, like “there are seven days in the week and none of them are called ‘someday.’” Doris decides this is her chance for a new start.

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  • Adrian Miller March 28, 2016 at 7:10 am

    I love Sally Field however I found this film so embarrassing that I actually cringed at some parts of it.

    If this is the best that we can do for mature women then the film industry is doomed.

    Reply
  • B.Elliott March 24, 2016 at 4:18 pm

    Wonderfully written review! I want to see this.

    Reply