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Warner Home Video presents
Sybil (1976)

"Sybil, everything you care about survives in those parts of you that your mother wasn't able to reach—your music, your painting, even your ability to love. They survive there."
- Dr. Cornelia Wilbur (Joanne Woodward)

Review By: David Krauss  
Published: August 10, 2006

Stars: Joanne Woodward, Sally Field, Brad Davis
Other Stars: Martine Bartlett, Jane Hoffman, Charles Lane, Jessamine Milner, William Prince
Director: Daniel Petrie

MPAA Rating: Not Rated for (adult themes, disturbing imagery)
Run Time: 03h:06m:55s
Release Date: July 18, 2006
UPC: 012569701458
Genre: television


Style
Grade
Substance
Grade
Image Transfer
Grade
Audio Transfer
Grade
Extras
Grade
A AA-B B

DVD Review

Before Sybil, actress Sally Field was regarded—and often dismissed—as a trivial sitcom star whose perky demeanor and fresh-faced, girl-next-door beauty infused (and bolstered) such nonsensical shows as Gidget and The Flying Nun. Yet after a decade of cushy TV success, Field craved more rigorous roles, and few offered more challenges than the mentally unbalanced Sybil. Field fought for and won the part, but the nagging question remained: Could this lightweight actress, who had hitherto portrayed only bubbly, puerile characters, believably embody a woman who harbored more than a dozen tortured personalities in her troubled mind? Many doubted Field's abilities before Sybil. Nobody has since.

Field silenced the skeptics when Sybil first aired in 1976, filing an intense, multi-faceted performance that won her a well-deserved Emmy. But this fascinating made-for-television movie is much more than an actor's showcase. Based on a real-life case study (and enormously successful book), Sybil chronicles the arduous, often harrowing struggle of a sweet yet deeply disturbed young woman to unify her splintered psyche. In a clever twist, Joanne Woodward—who two decades before took home an Oscar for her landmark portrayal of a similarly afflicted woman in The Three Faces of Eve—plays the sympathetic Dr. Cornelia Wilbur, who not only counsels and treats Sybil, but also becomes a crack detective, uncovering the shocking clues in Sybil's torturous childhood that help unlock the mysteries of her fractured brain.

Sybil Dorsett lives a solitary life in New York City; she works part-time as a substitute teacher, yet is unable to form intimate relationships with others. Over time, lengthy blackouts and erratic behavior increasingly unnerve her, and during one such period of "moodiness," she breaks a window and cuts her hand, prompting a trip to the emergency room and a psychiatric referral. Dr. Wilbur interviews her, and soon meets the various personalities that surface whenever Sybil is too fearful to confront everyday situations. There's the refined Vicki, who speaks French and helps Sybil maintain her daily routine; the angry Peggy, whose paralyzing fear of "the people" keeps her in a perpetual hysterical state; the outgoing and musically accomplished Vanessa, who pursues romance with Richard (Brad Davis), a widowed father who's attracted to Sybil's vulnerability; the suicidal Marcia, who often pushes Sybil to the brink of destruction; and even two boys, Mike and Sid. Another half dozen "characters" make sporadic appearances, each filling specific voids in Sybil's life, and preventing her from confronting ghastly memories of her monstrous mother.

Director Daniel Petrie expertly juxtaposes sensitive, emotional therapy sessions with the creepy, abusive juvenile world the young Sybil was forced to endure. After a few traumatic flashbacks, we understand all too well why Sybil blocked out the painful episodes and retreated inward, and throughout the film we dread confronting the demons of her past almost as much as she. At times, Petrie resorts to horror movie tricks to build suspense and snag our attention, but the chicanery works, enhancing Sybil's real-life nightmares and proving how profoundly they affected those who knew her.

New York locations lend Sybil both an authentic and feature film feel, and first class performances and a lyrical script prevent it from sensationalizing the subject matter. Field is a constant revelation, meticulously constructing each of Sybil's unique personalities, but resisting the temptation to wade into harpy territory. Though the showiness of the role sometimes detracts from the story, one can't blame Field for hungrily devouring it, and her work remains as fresh and riveting as it seemed 30 years ago. Woodward wisely doesn't try to compete, and instead files a beautifully modulated, natural performance. Tough yet tender, the no-nonsense Dr. Wilbur takes charge of Sybil and gingerly dissects her various selves while firmly guiding her down the path of recovery.

Originally constructed as a four-hour, two-night TV movie, Sybil drags a bit when viewed in a single sitting, especially as it builds the relationship between Sybil and Richard, a fictional character who's used as a dramatic device. But that's the only real fault of this excellent production, which, unlike most made-for-television films of the period, doesn't patronize its viewers. Like its brave heroine, Sybil is complex, unsettling, and ultimately triumphant.

Rating for Style: A
Rating for Substance: A

 

Image Transfer

 One
Aspect Ratio1.33:1 - Full Frame
Original Aspect Ratioyes
Anamorphicno


Image Transfer Review: Warner provides a sleek, lush transfer that belies the movie's television roots. Bright, vivid colors perk up the drab New York backdrop and add a surreal quality to the horrific flashbacks, while excellent contrast and clarity keep the drama immediate and absorbing. A couple of stray digital artifacts could be detected, but almost no dirt or grit sullies this clean, smooth presentation.

Image Transfer Grade: A-

 

Audio Transfer

 LanguageRemote Access
DS 2.0Englishno


Audio Transfer Review: The packaging advertises a Dolby stereo soundtrack, but my receiver decoded it as mono. Nevertheless, the audio is generally clear, with only a few instances of muffled dialogue requiring a volume boost. The music score overwhelms the action at times, but for the most part, the balance is solid and even.

Audio Transfer Grade: B

 

Disc Extras

Static menu with music
Scene Access with 32 cues and remote access
Subtitles/Captions in English, French, Spanish with remote access
5 Featurette(s)
Packaging: generic plastic two-disc keepc
Picture Disc
2 Discs
1-Sided disc(s)
Layers: dual
Layers Switch: 01h:29m:54s

Extras Review: The psychiatric sessions depicted in the film are full of drama and intensity, but the supplements on this 30th anniversary special edition adopt a far too clinical feel. Yes, the five featurettes contain a wealth of interesting information, but the facts and anecdotes are presented in an overly dry, static fashion. Staring straight on at interviewees who talk for three or four minutes at a stretch quickly becomes tiresome, but that's how Examining Sybil, a three-part, 55-minute documentary—divided into individual segments on screenwriting, casting, and production—is filmed. Screenwriter Stewart Stern (Rebel Without a Cause), producer Peter Dunne, Woodward, Field, and Dorothea Petrie, widow of director Daniel Petrie, cover all the bases, discussing the project's genesis, the difficulties of constructing a cohesive, dramatic script, the various actresses who were considered for the lead roles (including Natalie Wood and Audrey Hepburn), the reluctance on the part of Stern and Dunne to even audition Field, studio interference (and how it was thwarted), and how the film's initial director had to be replaced after only a couple of days of shooting. Woodward and Field make insightful, pointed comments, but their contributions remain frustratingly limited, while Stern drones on (and on and on), veering off onto tangents that continually strain our patience. Judicious editing would have helped transmit the information more succinctly, and a more lively visual presentation (incorporating more graphics and film clips) would have made the piece more engaging. Still, this is a worthwhile documentary that will please the film's many fans.

One hopes the provocatively titled Therapy Session might be a collection of tapes or transcripts from actual sessions between Sybil and Dr. Wilbur, but it's only a dreary three-minute featurette in which Stern relates how he obtained the material and incorporated it into the film. The Paintings of Sybil begins promisingly enough, as one of Sybil's art students discusses their intimate relationship and Sybil's myriad talents and interests, and how she's much more than the troubled character portrayed in the movie. Once again, however, it gets bogged down in minutia, and seems far longer than its 16-minute running time. The color artwork, though—which spans a 20-year period between 1944 and 1965—is beautifully presented, and embraces a wide array of subjects and styles.

Extras Grade: B

 

Final Comments

Amazingly, 30 years have passed since Sybil first aired, but this psychological case study hasn't lost its edge. Rarely has the topic of multiple personality disorder received such an intelligent treatment, and the spellbinding performances of Field and Woodward enhance every frame of this important and absorbing film. Highly recommended.

 


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