Sybil
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Sybil

For most people there is one think of which we are all certain, who we are. You know your personality, what make you a unique individual. What is unimaginable to most would be the concept of sharing your body with several different and distinct personalities. This is just what is examined by the 1976 television min series, Sybil. Based on the best selling novel by Flora Rheta Schreiber, Sybil examines the tumultuous life of a young woman simply referred to as Sybil. Sybil (Sally Field) was a meek, retiring person that many would even describe as Ďmouseyí. She worked as a substitute grade school teacher and attended Columbia University in New York City. As long as Sybil was aware of she suffered from emotional breakdowns and prolonged black outs. In the most extreme cases Sybil would lose months even years of time. The thing that perplexed her the most is that during that time she apparently interacted with people although she would not have any memories of the encounters. By the time Sybil came to New York City she had hoped and prayed that these blackouts where behind her. It a way it was fortunate that they where not. When Sybil has a blackout in Central Park and regains consciousness standing knee deep in a lake she decides to seek out professional help. Sybil winds up in the office of Dr. Cornelia Wilbur (Joanne Woodward). Initially Dr. Wilbur doesnít see anything too serious with the young woman; just a shy girl from a small town having a few natural problems adjusting to a new life away from her family and on her own in the big city. Dr. Wilbur has to completely reassess her new patientís condition as Sybilís behavior becomes increasingly inexplicable. Sybil initially seems to be suffering from social anxiety disorder or a form of bi-polar disorder. Sybil would be happy and outgoing one session, almost pathologically shy the next. The situation comes to a head when Dr. Wilbur is awoken one night by a frantic young womanís call informing the bewildered doctor that Sybil is about to kill herself. When the good doctor tracks Sybil down in a shoddy hotel Sybil is confused that she has broken a window and cut her arm. In a matter of minutes Sybil has transformed in front of Wilbur, and the psychiatrist begins to believe that Sybil is suffering something far worse than previous diagnosis. Dr. Wilbur came to a new diagnosis; Sybil had multiple personalities, now referred to as dissociative identity disorder. Over the next years of therapy the doctor would identify some sixteen distinct personalities within Sybil.

The numerous personas of Sybil slowly came to the attention of Dr. Wilbur. The doctor would use hypnotism to call specific personalities to speak directly to them and begin to piece together the tragic events in Sybilís life that caused this split. One of the most dominate personalities was Vicky. Vicky was a young teen who considered herself very proper and polite. She would point out how refined she was as she would eat in from of Wilbur. She also prided herself on being fluent in French although she only spoke a rough high school variety of the language. Vicky was able to remember what happens when other personalities have control over Sybilís body. Then there was pathetic little Marsha. She is dark and depressed, a child that would make Wednesday Addams seem like the life of a party. It was actually Marsha who attempted suicide in that hotel room. Another personality that features prominently in the film version of the story is Vanessa. She is artistic, an accomplished piano player and in the film she starts to date Rick (Brad Davis), a free spirited neighbor who worked as a street musician.

As Dr. Wilbur began to delve into the different personalities she noticed that there was a very real reason for each personality. Something horrible had happened to Sybil when she was very young and the personalities were a desperate attempt to cope. It turns out that Sybilís mother was a sadistic, schizophrenic religious zealot. On an almost daily basis mother would emotionally and physically abuse the helpless child. Sybil was unable to find an adult to save her so the personalities began to appear. Most did not share being related to the source of the torment, they had different, kinder mothers. Her depression was isolated in Marsha, her talent in Vanessa and Vicky became the child Sybil wanted to be, well regarded by adults. There where others that hid within Sybilís mind, each one manifesting a response to her horrible treatment.

For a television mini series this production had a cast that most films would envy. Two of the best and most talented actresses of any generation took on exceptionally difficult roles with an emotional impact that remains a great watch even today. For people of my age we grew up with Sally Field. I remember that just about every boy at school had a crush on Gidget, a girl on television our own age who was cute and prone to wear bikinis. Little did we suspect that the actress that played the typical California girl and a flying nun would have such depth within. In this presentation Field was able to show the world just how powerful an actress she was. This was certainly a gateway to her two Oscar wins and garnered an Emmy for Field. There were no makeup tricks or special effects to bring about the change from one personality to another. It was all Sally Field. By using her voice, body language and expressive face she was able to let the audience know a different character was out. Joanne Woodward is no stranger to stories about multiple personalities. In 1957 Woodward gave her Oscar winning performance in the Three Faces of Eve where this time she was the young woman with different personalities. As Dr. Wilbur she gave a performance full of empathy, able to ground the audience in this most bizarre story. Woodward gave a stunning performance here. Every scene she is in will captivate you completely.

Director Daniel Petrie had a difficult task bringing this story to television. The book was extremely graphic especially in the descriptions of the abuse Sybil endured. While the network Standards and Practices division would not allow a complete look at the more sexual manifestations of the abuse Petrie did manage to get the idea across to the audience. Since television is a far more visual medium than a book Petrie employed a novel device to show the audience what is happening within Sybil. There was a surreal, dark room filled with children. Some played together, others isolated themselves. Each was one of Sybilís personalities. These scenes hit on a very real emotional level showing the crowded conflict within this small young woman. Petrie also had to bend to the requirement of adding some sort of love story. Working with screen writer Stewart Stern there was the introduction of Rick, a love interest for Sybil. Some of my least favorite scenes in this film have this character. Still, the focus of the film and what Petrie did best was the sessions between Sybil and Wilbur. Petrie recalled his earlier work on the famous Studio One television from the late forties, those scenes where emotion in there purest form.

Warner Brothers has done the job right bringing this American television classic to DVD. First and foremost is they provide the original, full length version. This is the 198 minute version rarely if ever seen since 1976. Most of the times you happened to catch this on television you either the 122 theatrical edit or the Ďexpandedí 132 cut. The full screen video does show some signs of age, this is the thirtieth anniversary after all. While some little flecks appear now and again this is the best this film has been seen since it first appeared. The color balance was a touch muted but that actually works with the content. The mono audio is clear letting every word of the all important dialogue to be heard. I was enthralled by the book and couldnít wait to see this on television. Now, thirty years later I can now add this to an honored place in my video collection. This is a must have.

Posted 7/1/06

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