It’s one of the most talked about speeches Academy Awards history. But when a 39-year-old Sally Field tearfully accepted her best actress Oscar for Places in the Heart, gushing, “I can’t deny the fact that you like me. Right now, you like me!” she had no intention of creating such a stir. Explains Sally: “For me, it was about admitting that the moment was real.”

After nearly 60 years in show business, two marriages and a legendary love affair with Burt Reynolds, Sally has seen her share of real moments, for better and for worse. But the star, who turned 75 in November, has finally learned to accept herself for who she is — regardless of who “likes” her. “I find that I’m not as worried anymore about what other people think,” she says with a smile. “That’s a comfortable place to be.”

It’s a long time coming. As a child, Sally constantly sought the approval of her stepfather, stuntman Jock Mahoney, whom she describes as both “cruel and loving.” Navigating not only Jock’s volatile temper but also her family’s shaky finances proved stressful for Sally. “I felt I was in danger all the time,” she admits. As an adult, she found herself repeating that dynamic — striving to make others happy but feeling, she says, that “I [wasn’t] enough.”

Sally began acting at 19, forgoing college to play TV’s boy-crazy Gidget, and following that up with the title role on the The Flying Nun — a part that nearly torpedoed her career before it began. But while she fought hard for quality roles and eventually won them, Sally’s love life was full of disappointments. Her first marriage, to her high school sweetheart, Steve Craig, produced two sons but ended after seven years.

Next came her relationship with Burt, whom Sally says was “very similar to my stepfather.” And, while she eventually wed film exec Alan Greisman and welcomed another son, that marriage failed as well. After her 1994 divorce, a friend says, Sally was “in a kind of wasteland,” both personally and professionally. “She wasn’t getting any acting offers that were very substantial, and she pretty much gave up on the dating scene.”

Sally eventually found her career footing again, earning an Oscar nomination for her turn as Mary Todd Lincoln in Steven Spielberg’s Lincoln and garnering a slew of fulfilling TV and film roles. But in her private life, she feels she might just be better off on her own. “Sally loves her life the way it is,” says an insider of the star, who recently began shooting the new film Spoiler Alert in New York City. “She doesn’t see herself marrying again, and that’s fine.”

Instead, the insider says, Sally spends her scant free time with her brother Richard, friends like Tom Hanks — and, of course, her sons Peter, Eli and Samuel and five grandchildren. “To raise children who go on to be great parents is an accomplishment,” Sally says. “That’s the Oscar moment in life.”