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SYBIL

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.   

The Package 
     SYBIL started life as a 1974 bestseller by Flora Rheta Schreiber, an absorbing account of the pseudonymous Sybilís struggles with multiple personality disorder and the 11-year psychiatric treatment that helped to integrate her sixteen personalities into one.  The bookís authenticity has been called into question in recent years, but the real ďSybil,Ē the late Shirley Ardell Mason, insisted up to her death in 1998 that ďevery wordĒ was true.
     In any event, Iíd probably like the movie adaptation better if it were more faithful to Schreiberís account.  Primary among my complaints is the final integration of Sybilís 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 canít deny its power; I donít think itís much of a stretch to call this the finest TV movie Iíve 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 Sybilís 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 Sybilís twisted mother.
     That leaves Sally Field as Sybil.  This is almost certainly the best work sheís 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.  Whatís more, Field, despite her second billing, carries this 3-hour plus project easily.  Interestingly enough, her next role was in SMOKEY AND THE BANDIT. 

The Story 
     Sybil is a severely disturbed college student living in New York City.  After a ďblackoutĒ 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 doesnít notice anything seriously amiss, but as her patientís 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 Sybilís personalities will divulge what it was.  It takes hypnosis to penetrate Sybilís defenses, revealing a schizophrenic mother who devised sadistic ďgamesĒ 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 Sybilís 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 Sybilís 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. 

The Direction 
     Director Daniel Petrie, a seasoned veteran, does an effective job conveying Sybilís 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 Sybilís ďblackoutsĒ: sheíll be asked a question in Dr. Wilburís office and then respond a second later in a completely different setting.  While much of the filmís latter half is held together by Woodwardís 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 Petrieís 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 Sybilís childhood flashbacks; he doles out just enough visual information to convey the bare essentials of Sybilís tortures, which in this case is more than enough! 


Vital Statistics 

SYBIL
Lorimar Productions 

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
 


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