Sybil Movie Review

Thirty years have passed since the premiere of the groundbreaking television movie Sybil, and the release of full 192-minute version on DVD, along with a collection of interesting extras, is an excellent way to celebrate the anniversary one of the great TV events of all time. This harrowing true tale of multiple personality disorder, psychoanalysis, and unspeakable acts of child abuse depicted in all their horror, is unforgettable, as is the performance of Sally Field, who leapt to the A-list on the heels of an Emmy win for her work and picked up her first Oscar, for Norma Rae, three years later.

Late twentysomething Sybil Dorsett (Field) finds herself standing in a Central Park lake one day and can't remember how she got there. This is nothing new for the mousy and nervous woman, who has worked as a teacher. She's had blackouts throughout her life, some lasting for months. Luckily, Sybil finds a sympathetic ear at the office of noted psychiatrist Dr. Cornelia Wilbur (Joanne Woodward), who is willing to take on the case even though she has no idea what she's in for.

Soon Sybil's erratic behavior is evident. During some therapy sessions, Sybil seems fine. Other times she's pathologically shy, or belligerent, or even speaks with a different accent. It's like she has many different personalities, and in fact she does. After long sessions of hypnosis, Wilbur is able to count more than 16, from the very polite Vicky to the free-spirited Vanessa (who comes to the fore when Sybil goes on dates) to the angry and depressed Marsha. There are even a few boys in the mix.

The obvious pun is that Field has a field day with this role -- with these roles. Her breakdowns are fascinating to watch, especially when she starts muttering about "the people" or "the green kitchen," in one case causing quite a stir in the restaurant of the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Dr. Wilbur is baffled. Where does multiple personality disorder come from? What can cause it? And what, if anything, can cure it? Hypnosis holds the key, and Woodward and Field are brilliant in these gripping scenes.

Only after months of therapy and breakdowns does Dr. Wilbur get to the source of Sybil's despair: vicious abuse suffered at the hands of her exquisitely insane religious fanatic of a mother (Martine Bartlett), who subjected young Sybil to almost daily degradations, most of which involved sexual abuse in the guise of religious practices and most of which took place in the dreaded "green kitchen," a place that once you see through Sybil's flashbacks you will never forget. (How these scenes got past broadcast censors in 1976 is a mystery.)

Dr. Wilbur eventually sees Sybil's many personalities as protectors, as splinters of Sybil's self that broke off to surround her with love and protection during her traumatic childhood. In adulthood, Sybil depends on them to jump in and assist her in moments of stress. Dr. Wilbur's ultimate solution, to introduce Sybil to each of her alter egos and to attempt to integrate them back into a whole, is a deeply moving climax. Powerful stuff.

The two-disc DVD includes interviews with Sally Field, Joanne Woodward, and friends of the real Sybil plus a gallery of the real Sybil's artwork.

Can't she fly instead?

Cast & Crew

Director :

Producer : Jacqueline Babbin

Starring : , , Martine Bartlett


Comments

davidsrose's picture

davidsrose

Just for the record, although this was based on a 'real' story, it was not a 'true' story. The 'real' Sybil eventually confessed that the whole thing was a hoax. There's a new book out this month which goes into the whole debunking thing in detail. Of course, this doesn't in any way detract from the film.

2 years 8 months ago
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Sybil Rating

" Excellent "

Rating: NR, 1976

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