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Case Number 09739

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Sybil: 30th Anniversary Two-Disc Special Edition

Warner Bros. // 1976 // 198 Minutes // Not Rated
Reviewed by Judge Brendan Babish (Retired) // July 26th, 2006

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All Rise...

Judge Brendan Babish's last girlfriend had schizophrenia. She was good people, but it didn't work out.

The Charge

One woman. Thirteen personalities. The electrifying true story.

Opening Statement

Sybil is a made-for-television mini-series that originally aired over two nights in 1976. It was greeted with enthusiastic reviews, and helped make Sally Field (who won an Emmy for her performance) a star. When the film was originally released on video its running time was truncated from 198 minutes to 122. Later, an "extended" version was released, running 132 minutes. To further confuse viewers, when the movie would be re-broadcast on television scenes were randomly restored or cut to meet time constraints or viewer's sensibilities. So, if you think you've seen Sybil, well, maybe you haven't.

But now Warner Bros. is releasing the original, 198-minute version of Sybil on a 30th anniversary two-disc special edition. After so many years, will an old made-for-TV movie still have relevance for modern audiences?

Facts of the Case

Sybil is based on the true story of a young woman who successfully fought and overcame her mental affliction. Sybil Dorsett (Sally Field, Forrest Gump) is a mild-mannered graduate student painter who lives alone in the Big Apple. One day she finds herself standing up to her knees in a Central Park lake, and can't figure out how she got there. For most of her youth, Sybil figured everyone experienced similar blackouts, they just didn't talk about them. Despite suffering a blackout that lasted two years, it isn't until meeting sympathetic psychiatrist Dr. Cornelia Wilbur (Joanne Woodward, Mr. and Mrs. Bridge) that she can admit she has a problem.

That problem is a multiple personality disorder. Sybil has a very tenuous grip on controlling her own identity. As a coping mechanism to deal with severe childhood trauma, she has developed a series of 13 personalities who will randomly appear with the onset of stress or certain stimuli. While some of these personalities, such as the charming Francophile Vanessa, are mostly harmless, others, such as the angry and suicidal Marsha, could do Sybil real, permanent harm. There are also a few boys in the mix, and these obviously have the capacity to create awkward situations. Despite Sybil's penury, Dr. Wilbur takes on her case, and devotes herself to curing this young, troubled woman.

The Evidence

Because most cinephiles regard TV movies the same way vampires view garlic, I feel I must stress that Sybil is not your typical TV movie. By this I mean, it is good. Yet Sybil still employs many of the most cloying affectations of TV movies—globs of melodrama, an overwrought score, and condescending voice over. But it works. I'm not really sure how they did it, but this is one compelling film.

The movie's obvious assets are its performances. Sally Field, who clearly deserved her Emmy, gives probably the best made-for-TV movie performance I have ever seen. Physically, Field is a small, unimposing woman, but she has an emotional power that could knock down buildings. This comes in handy when playing a character that is in fact 13 characters, some of whom are manic. And yes, Field does emote a little too broadly at times, but she still shows enough restraint to never let Sybil's affliction turn into a farce. Considering the numerous shifts between such strangely distinct personalities—from an old, crotchety woman to a rambunctious boy for example, the potential for excessive mugging was off the chart. Certainly an actor of Tori Spelling's caliber would have single-handedly turned Sybil into a film that Mary Kathrine Gallagher would be aping years later on Saturday Night Live.

Field's performance is matched by strong supporting work from Woodward and Brad Davis (Midnight Express), who plays Sybil's unsuspecting love interest. Woodward, an underrated actress whose career has been overshadowed by her legendary husband's, plays the good doctor with appropriate understatement and intelligence. The late Davis, who bears an uncanny resemblance to James Franco (The Ape), provides a fun, spirited performance in a film that otherwise provides few moments of levity.

What also works for the film is its intensity. There are several moments in Sybil that are difficult to watch. This is not because the film is graphic or exploitative of Sybil's condition, but effectively brusque cuts (a staple of 1970s drama) and great acting. Sybil suffers several breakdowns that will make viewers uneasy, but what are particularly affecting are the flashbacks to Sybil's youth. Sybil was physically and mentally abused by her mother, who—aided by a Norman Bates-like fright wig (which nearly pushes some of the scenes into camp)—comes off as a villain almost on par with Hannibal Lector. In particular, there is one scene, involving a broomstick (not in the way you think) and a piano, that is one of the most harrowing I have ever seen.

While Sybil is certainly not easy viewing, it is a well made, and exceptionally acted movie. As previously mentioned, there are some elements of overwrought emotional manipulation, but ultimately this is a TV movie that has much more in common with the great theatrical films of the '70s (the best decade ever for American cinema) than tripe like Mother, May I Sleep With Danger?
Warner Bros. should be commended for releasing the complete unedited cut of Sybil. They deserve further kudos for providing a bonus DVD of extras. "Examining Sybil" contains a very interesting (at least for writers) interview with Stewart Stern, who wrote Sybil's teleplay. Stern, who also wrote Rebel Without a Cause, uses ample amounts of humor while discussing the film's casting, production, and his own trouble adapting Sybil the book into a Sybil movie. Don't be fooled by the title of the "Sybil Therapy Session" featurette. There is no footage of the real life Sybil on this DVD. Instead we get Stern again, discussing how he used audiotapes of Sybil's therapy sessions to help craft his script. However, the "Paintings of Sybil" featurette does provide several paintings by the actual Sybil, along with comments from one of her art students and a gallery owner. It is a heartening coda to this fine film to see that Sybil was a prodigious, talented and successful painter.

Closing Statement

Earlier this year, Warner Bros. announced that they would be remaking Sybil—again as a TV movie. Though the capable Jessica Lange is attached to star as Dr. Wilbur, this seems to be a pointless remake (redundant, perhaps?). While the original Sybil is not a pitch-perfect movie, it's only glaring fault is a slight over-melodramatic tone. I have great doubts that a contemporary TV movie—which are still as bathetic now as they were then—will improve on this score. For anyone with interest in mental disorders, or a particular compassion for those afflicted with it, watching this film is going to be a gripping and moving experience.

The Verdict

Judge Brendan Babish finds the defendant, Sybil: Not guilty. Not guilty. Not guilty. Not guilty. Not guilty. Not guilty. Not guilty. Not guilty. Not guilty. Not guilty. Not guilty. Not guilty. And guilty (that Marsha's such a troublemaker).

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Scales of Justice

Video: 82
Audio: 82
Extras: 87
Acting: 93
Story: 90
Judgment: 91

Perp Profile

Studio: Warner Bros.
Video Formats:
• Full Frame
Audio Formats:
• Dolby Digital 2.0 Surround (English)
• English
• French
• Spanish
Running Time: 198 Minutes
Release Year: 1976
MPAA Rating: Not Rated
• Drama
• Television

Distinguishing Marks

• Examining Sybil Featurette
• The Paintings of Sybil
• Sybil Therapy Session


• IMDb

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