This is the famous, multi-Emmy award winning 1976 TV production starring Sally Field as Sybil, a real woman possessed by 16 different personalities. SYBIL remains a superbly acted, one-of-a-kind achievement that has yet to be surpassed as the definitive cinematic treatment on multiple personality disorder. One thing, though: the version under review here is the ORIGINAL 2-part 198-minute cut, NOT the severely condensed 122-minute abomination that was released on video.
SYBIL began life as a 1974 bestseller by Flora Rheta Schreiber, an absorbing account of the pseudonymous Sybil’s struggles with multiple personality disorder and the 11-year psychiatric treatment that helped to integrate her sixteen personalities into one. The book’s authenticity has been called into question in recent years, but the real “Sybil,” the late Shirley Ardell Mason, insisted up to her death in 1998 that “every word” was true.
In any event, I’d probably like the movie adaptation better if it were more faithful to Schreiber’s account. Primary among my complaints is the final integration of Sybil’s many selves, in the book a long, painstaking, setback-filled process that the movie compresses into a single afternoon in a park!
That said, I can’t deny its power; I don’t think it’s much of a stretch to call this the finest TV movie I’ve seen, and probably the best possible interpretation of this material (for an example of how not to tell this type of story, see the laughable Shelly Long vehicle VOICES WITHIN). In some ways it even improves on the book, most notably in the performances of Joanne Woodward as Sybil’s committed shrink and Brad Davis as her confused boyfriend; in contrast to their literary counterparts, who came off as little more than personality-free ciphers orbiting around Sybil, both actors create fully-rounded, compelling characters. Martine Bartlett also deserves credit for her unforgettable, blood-curdling portrayal of Sybil’s twisted mother.
That leaves Sally Field as Sybil. This is almost certainly the best work she’s ever done; her frequent changes in character, from the mousy Sybil to the more refined Vicky, the assertive Mary Lou or little-girl Sybil Ann, are totally convincing. What’s more, Field, despite her second billing, carries this 3-hour plus project easily. Interestingly enough, her next role was in SMOKEY AND THE BANDIT.
Sybil is a severely disturbed college student living in New York City. After a “blackout” suffered in a park one day, after which she finds herself standing knee deep in a lake, she decides to seek help from Dr. Cornelia Wilbur, a committed psychiatrist. Ms. Wilbur initially doesn’t notice anything seriously amiss, but as her patient’s behavior grows more bizarre, it gradually dawns on her that Sybil suffers from multiple personality disorder brought on by childhood abuse. This abuse was apparently so horrific that none of Sybil’s personalities will divulge what it was. It takes hypnosis to penetrate Sybil’s defenses, revealing a schizophrenic mother who devised sadistic “games” for her daughter, ranging from tripping young Sybil as she ascended the stairs to shutting her in a box for days on end.
But a final horror remains, one so ugly Sybil still refuses to divulge it (this is, incidentally, quite different from the book, where the details of Sybil’s childhood abuse were all explained and dispensed with midway through the narrative). The revelation of this final trauma, the doctor believes, will allow Sybil to at last confront her various selves and enfold them into a single personality. It takes a trip to a secluded park to finally break down Sybil’s defenses. Here she at last confronts the most grievous of her many childhood tortures: a daily routine administered by her mother that involved sharp objects and an enema bag. This revelation frees her, and at last Sybil is able to meet each of her personalities and combine them into one.
Director Daniel Petrie, a seasoned veteran, does an effective job conveying Sybil’s fractured mental state. A surreal room is often presented where each of her personalities reside, waiting for their chance to take control of the host body. Far more effective in my view are the early scenes conveying Sybil’s “blackouts”: she’ll be asked a question in Dr. Wilbur’s office and then respond a second later in a completely different setting. While much of the film’s latter half is held together by Woodward’s narration, there is none to be had in these early scenes, lending the proceedings a near avant-garde feel.
The heart of the film is taken up with the intense, often violent psychiatric sessions between Sybil and Dr. Wilbur, and Petrie’s smartest move here was to simply stay out of the way of his two lead actresses. I also appreciated the discretion Petrie demonstrates in presenting the violence of Sybil’s childhood flashbacks; he doles out just enough visual information to convey the bare essentials of Sybil’s tortures, which in this case is more than enough!
Director: Daniel Petrie
Producer: Jacqueline Babbin
Screenplay: Stewart Stern
(Based on the book by Flora Rheta Schreiber)
Cinematography: Mario Tosi
Editing: Michael S. McLean, Rita Roland
Cast: Sally Field, Joanne Woodward, Brad Davis, Martine Bartlett, Jane Hoffman, Charles Lane, Jessamine Milner, William Prince, Penelope Allen, Camila Ashland, Tommy Crebbs, Gina Petrushka, Harold Pruett