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It's the hottest day of the year, but Sally Field, togged in a red sweater over a white T-shirt, has never looked chirpier or more chipper.

The reason for her cheer is the glorious spoof on TV's Soapland, "Soapdish," which has just opened to give the summer a much-needed burst of hysterics, if not mass hysteria. TV's one-time "Gidget" and "Flying Nun" plays obnoxious Celeste Talbert of a long-running soap opera called "The Sun Also Sets."Ratings are slipping, yet everyone lusts for her job, which she hangs onto with the grim determination - and talons - of a mama bald eagle protecting her young.

In the rat race with - or against - her are such ruthless types as Kevin Kline, Robert Downey Jr., Cathy Moriarty and Whoopi Goldberg. It's a riot . . . or could cause one.

"Without a doubt it's my most slapsticky farce, my broadest comedy to date," says Field, who gets knocked about plenty in "Soapdish."

"It just happened that way. I knew it when I read the script, which is all you have to go by.

"It's not really the story of Gidget. It's timeless - it could be in the '30s or the '50s taken to an exaggerated level. It's really today, I guess: After all, there's no time like the present."

Field credits co-star Kevin Kline - who contributed a lot of the hysteria to "A Fish Called Wanda" - for his "Soapdish" input.

`Kevin is my partner in the film, really. He's a unique character, not only in the film itself, but in calling on things that existed in both our lives.

"It's both him and me - but really it's all actors. He's so sophisticated, yet slapstick. It's inspiring to watch, both physically and comedically. He's someone to watch, respond to, and act opposite, which is why we rehearsed for two weeks improvising scenes before starting.

"I'm not really Celeste, of course. But I've been a celebrity since I was very young, and I know how to handle fans with a certain ease, and incorporate them in my existence - as an elemental force, you might say, like the wind.

"I've always been that physical and that silly, but I've never had a place to put it before."

Certainly not in her forthcoming "Dying Young," which is neither slapsticky nor silly.

It's her third production - the first were "Murphy's Romance" and "Punchline" - but she doesn't appear in it.

"It's a two-character love story starring Julia Roberts and Campbell Scott. His character has had leukemia for 10 years, and it's about the excuses we make to keep ourselves out of life; two people who are not in the river and wading. But they begin to live. It's about having whatever you have now, not, `Oh, when I get richer, or thinner someday."'

"That's how he uses his illness: `I'll become better and then I'll have a life.'

Isn't this a bit of a downer for a summer movie ("Dying Young" is slated to open June 21)?

"It's moving, but it makes you feel great, someone you want to dance with, feel closer to," says Field.

According to Field, serious thought was never given to changing the title, which was the title of the book it's based on. The feeling is that "Dying Young" is automatically a "high profile" movie because of its star, Julia Roberts.

Field's film just before "Soapdish," "Not Without My Daughter," was controversial, too, but for different reasons.

It's about an American mother who goes to Iran with her Iranian husband, then is held there against her will until she can escape, thanks to help from Iranians and Americans alike.

"It was released two days before the air attacks started in the gulf," she points out, "and the script was passed by Arabic ambassadors to the U.N. before production began.

"I liked it because it was an adventure story based on reality - one woman's tale of terror and how she got out. Reviews were what you might call mixed, but it's doing huge business in Europe - it's cleaning up there.

"I don't read reviews anyway because I react to the emotional side of life and I can't work if I'm held back by that."