Nearly 20 years after winning on Oscar for The Three Faces of Eve (1967), in which she played a woman with three different personalities, Joanne Woodward switched from patient to therapist for the acclaimed telefilm Sybil. Telling the fictionalized story of a young woman with 16 different personalities, the picture was a breakthrough project for Sally Field, who plays the title role. Continuing the artistic maturation she’d begun with serious telefilms including Maybe I’ll Come Home in the Spring (1971), former sitcom actress Field proved she was capable of heavy lifting, dramatically speaking, earning an Emmy for her efforts. (Just three years later, she added on Oscar to her mantle, thanks to 1979’s Norma Rae.)
This behind-the-scenes data is useful for contextualizing Sybil, which is excellent on many levels but very much a performance showcase. Originally broadcast over two nights, the unexpurgated version of the picture runs a whopping 187 minutes. And while it’s easy to see where fat could have been trimmed, the project’s integrity is beyond question. Not only is Sybil consistently earnest, humane, and intelligent, but it’s also made with the level of craftsmanship one would normally expect from a theatrical feature. Director Daniel Petrie employs extraordinarily long takes, correctly assuming that his leading actors’ remarkable work will sustain interest, and he shoots even the simplest locations with a rich sense of atmosphere. Additionally, Petrie and his collaborators made a strong choice by filming many scenes with horror-movie aesthetics, since the title character regards her multiple personalities—and the traumas of the past—like demons that are tormenting her. The overall experience of Sybil is immersive and powerful, if perhaps a bit too voluptuous.
The movie begins in New York, where Sybil Dorsett (Field) is a graduate student and part-time schoolteacher prone to inexplicable behavior: She suffers blackouts during which she acts like someone other than herself. As the frequency and severity of her episodes increase, Sybil injures herself and lands in a hospital, where she encounters kindly psychologist Dr. Cornelia Wilbur (Woodward). Thus begins an 11-year journey during which Dr. Wilbur catalogs Sybil’s personalities—some of which appear only fleetingly, and some of which overtake her consciousness for long periods of time—and during which Dr. Wilbur tries to discover the reasons why Sybil’s psyche initially fragmented.
The film’s therapy scenes are compelling, with Field providing the fireworks while Woodward counters with compassion and rationality. Concurrently, scenes of Sybil trying to live a “normal” life are poignant. The most incendiary material appears in the flashbacks to Sybil’s horrific youth, when she was mistreated and mutilated by her mentally ill mother. Many other films and TV projects have gone down similar roads in the years before and since Sybil. Nonetheless, the novelistic length of the project allows screenwriter Stewart Stern—working from a nonfiction book by Flora Rhela Schreiber—to explore myriad nuances of Sybil’s condition and treatment. Further, the more-is-more approach pays off handsomely during the climax. Filled with feelings and insights and truths, some beautiful and some ugly, Sybil is a unique film that transcends its small-screen origins.
Hollywood unwisely tried dipping into the same well 20 years later, when CBS broadcast an 89-minute remake of Sybil starring Tammy Blanchard (as Sybil) and Jessica Lange (as Dr. Wilbur. The 2007 version was met with indifference.