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RATED: Not Rated
RUNNING TIME: 187 min.
• Retrospective Documentary: Examining Sybil
• Sybil Therapy Session
• The Paintings of Sybil
“She’s a million-in-one girl!”
Sally Field, Joanne Woodward, Brad Davis
Sybil Dorsett (Field) knows she has a problem. She’s chaperoning a school field trip in Central Park one day when the creaking of a nearby swingset triggers strange images in her mind. Suddenly, she’s standing knee-deep in water, with no memory of how she got there. All her life, she’s been losing hours, sometimes months at a time, but the blackouts are becoming more frequent and more debilitating. Psychiatrist Cornelia Wilbur (Woodward) thinks she has the answer: upwards of sixteen distinct identities sharing Sybil’s psyche, each with different attitudes and comfort zones, surfacing as needed when Sybil feels distressed or threatened. There’s Peggy, an angry child; Vicky, precocious teenager; Vanessa, artistic and delicate; Mary, suicidal poet…
Dr. Wilbur searches for the key to Sybil, digging into her past. Can she bring all Sybil’s personalities back together and make her a whole person again? Is that what Sybil really needs?
An interesting factoid: following the original airing of Sybil, diagnoses of Dissociative Identity Disorder (in the United States, anyway) increased some 100 percent. Skeptics claimed that patients developed alter-egos not on their own, but in response to suggestive statements from their psychiatrists. I don’t want to go Cruise on you all, but there may be a point there. All healthy people compartmentalize and role-play to some degree in daily life. We employ different dialects and respond to different nicknames, depending on our company. We don’t talk to our parents the way we talk to our friends, to say nothing of the way we interact with strangers online.
What is indisputable about Sybil the film is that Field gives an astounding performance, transforming before our eyes from one persona to another. In one memorable scene, friendly neighbor Richard (Davis) invites her out on a hansom-cab ride. Sybil tenses up… then smiles and offers her hand, and we realize that it is Vicky who has joined Richard in the cab. Here and elsewhere, writer Stewart Stern explores themes of adaptation and identity beyond Sybil, painting New York City as a challenging, disorienting environment for any person struggling to be recognized as an individual.
Woodward, no stranger to schizophrenic characters, having starred in 1957’s Three Faces of Eve, tones down the flamboyance of the real-life Dr. Wilbur, providing a calm center for Field to orbit. This, along with Daniel Petrie’s intelligent direction, is crucial to the film’s centerpiece, a tour-de-force in which Field cycles through five personalities. The final third of the film doesn’t fare so well: Sybil’s trauma is traced to preadolescent abuse at the hands of her demented mother. The abuse itself (what we see of it, in flashbacks) is genuinely disturbing— I’m amazed that network TV 30 years ago allowed it to air— but actress Martine Bartlett plays the mother as a cackling hag out of a Grimm fairy tale. That’s dissociation for you.
Disc One is dedicated to the feature, presented in its entirety for the first time on home video. Picture quality is fantastic, especially for a television production of this vintage—there are no scratches or speckles whatsoever.
Disc Two contains new interviews with Field, Woodward, Stern, and producer Peter Dunne among others. They are all justifiably proud of their work. There is also a gallery of paintings by the real-life ‘Sybil’, accompanied by some interesting commentary from people who knew her. My only complaint here is that there is no chronology to the paintings, some of which were purportedly created by alternate personalities.