When Sybil Dorsett (Sally Field) first learns from psychoanalyst Dr. Cornelia Wilbur (Joanne Woodward) that her serial blackouts and “lost time” are the result of her suffering from a multiple personality disorder—with one such incident long ago having lasted two years and propelled her from third to fifth grade in what seemed to her like the blink of an eye—Sybil reacts with both horror and curiosity. Mostly horror.
Am I like Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde?, she asks Dr. Wilbur.
No is the reply, because, as the doctor forcefully insists—that is a work of fiction.
In all the years since the 1973 publication of Flora Rheta Schreiber’s blockbuster book Sybil, the 1976 made-for-TV adaptation that will concern us here, and the 2007 telefilm remake, not only have the facts about the case of Sybil Dorsett—that very name a fiction, being the pseudonym Schreiber used to conceal the identity of Minnesota-born commercial artist Shirley Ardell Mason—been clouded in doubt and dispute, but also the very legitimacy of her affliction a continuing matter of ongoing controversy. As certainly as many believe that dissociative identity disorder exists, biological evidence for DID remains elusive.
Even allowing for the acceptance of its existence, causes are still not agreed upon, nor are standards of effective treatment for patients meeting the criteria outlined in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM). The definition of DID underwent revisions as recently as the fifth edition of the DSM, published in 2013; the clinical back-and-forth about Sybil’s famous affliction is obviously far from over.
It is, or at least ought to be, well-established by now that moviegoers should not really rely on historical films for their history—especially when the source material for these films is often itself the subject of debate and controversy. The “biofilm” is particularly vulnerable to these complaints about authenticity, whether the subject of the film is still alive, recently deceased, or thousands of years gone to dust. We need only look to last year, and the fiery praise and criticism that arrived in the wake of Clint Eastwood’s American Sniper, to illustrate the point—but there is never really a case where the biofilm does not provoke disappointment or alarm or outrage from some quarter of viewers/”experts” who feel they are in a position to “know” better than the filmmakers what the “truth” of the story really is.
A short time ago, I happened to be in conversation with someone who had a personal relationship with John du Pont, the tragic subject of last year’s Foxcatcher, a movie that nearly nudged its way into my Top 10 list. In no uncertain terms, this person’s feeling about the movie was—and I’m making this a little less forceful than it came across in real life—that “they got it all wrong.” Making a fact-based movie, then, can seem not only irresistible, but also a no-win situation. Whether we are talking about John du Pont, Chris Kyle, Charlie Chaplin, Gandhi, Martin Luther King, Jr., Frances Farmer, Oskar Schindler, Brandon Teena, Malcolm X, or Jesus, there will always be someone who is absolutely sure the movie version of a real person’s life story is at best a failure and at worst an insult.
And that’s why, while the controversies about dissociative identity disorder and the differences between the actual life of Shirley Mason and the Schreiber book and the Sally Field TV movie are obviously of some legitimate interest, if those are the things that legitimately interest you—I’m still working my way through the book and wandering through some mental illness literature on the web, so I guess you could say it interests me enough—I will nevertheless favor ignoring all that here in too much detail, because what most interests me is what kind of story (or, as is appropriate to the subject matter, what kind of stories) Sybil is trying to tell, and whether or not Sybil is a good movie.
As to that, let me steer clear of any and all ambiguity: Sybil is a brilliant piece of work, and one of the great made-for-TV movies in an era that produced many great made-for-TV movies. (Yes, technically, I suppose we should call it a miniseries, as it was originally broadcast over two nights. But please. Don’t waste everyone’s time with those quibbles) I think these days, in the age of HBO and Showtime and so on, we tend to forget how impactful it was when a movie made for the small screen could feel so much more smart, intense, and cinematic than what we’d come to expect from our regular diet of television programming.
We take graphic and adult-oriented subject matter for granted today; one of the amazing things about Sybil is that the disturbing story material it presents, though “tame” just in terms of what we actually see, still has the power to shock and disturb. In addition to how strongly it registers as a psychological horror film, Sybil also remains one of the great tear-jerking experiences you can have—thanks to Stewart Stern’s intelligent, often nearly poetic script, director Daniel Petrie’s decidedly unsentimental approach, and especially the Emmy Award-winning lead performance by a young Sally Field that is truly hard to measure in terms of its greatness.
In addition to camerawork that often makes use of the slow-zoom as unsettlingly as any similar shot from The Exorcist, the film also employs jarring edits that keep the viewer on edge with dramatic, sometimes unexpected shifts in image and cutoffs in sound; the music by Leonard Rosenmann and Alan and Marilyn Bergmann spends less time tugging at heartstrings and more time making you feel as if you’ve just entered the Night Gallery—but the movie hardly “settles” for treating its story about mental illness like a simple horror film; at its heart, Sybil is a story about human compassion healing and ending a cycle of rage, guilt, and injury.
Sally Field, in the title role, creates one of the screen’s unforgettable characters in Sybil Dorsett. Her work here is immaculately detailed, making each of the many individual personalities that emerge (we can’t spend much time with them all) distinctive and believable. Just as Sybil’s doctor does, we eventually come to recognize who “Vicky” is, and who “Peggy” is, and who “Marsha” is, and so on, without our being told by the script.
The way Field enacts the entrances into her “fugue” states is highly unnerving in its realism and kind of unsparing in its ugliness—but just as well as she can manage scenes of outsized desperation or cognitive absences fueled by madness that would challenge the most seasoned of performers, Field is also never anywhere else but in the most present moment when it comes to the smallest of physical details or most subtle emotional beats. There’s little doubt how much this role helped pave the way to her Oscar win for Norma Rae three years later.
While Field’s tour-de-force performance is at the forefront of almost every scene, she receives sterling support from Joanne Woodward as the doctor who forces her to recognize (or “brings about the belief in,” depending on your attitude about DID and physician-implanted memories and so forth) each of the 16 separate personalities who “protect” Sybil’s courage and artistic gifts when she is incapable of manifesting them on her own.
The childless Dr. Wilbur is warned by a mentor against “falling in love with the illness” or making the case too personal to herself, but she nevertheless goes deeper into her relationship with Sybil than we would expect (or maybe even tolerate) from most professionals, referring more than once to nurturing a motherly instinct for the troubled young woman. By virtue of her part, Woodward needs to be just as effective listening as she is talking (Just ask Michael Caine how important this quality is in an actor!), and she shines just as much in scenes where we can see the wheels of her mind turning, lightning-fast, given some challenging new piece of information or outburst from her patient.
In the movie, Sybil’s experiences with dating and romance are channeled through Brad Davis (pre-Midnight Express), who plays a carriage driver/street busker neighbor who falls in love with her before realizing the true nature of her awkward shyness. Earlier I mentioned the sometimes lyrical qualities of the script; the scene between Field and Davis on a New York subway train is startling in its intimate tenderness, and ends with a line of dialogue every bit as quote-worthy as the ones we all recite from films like Casablanca and Chinatown.
Another key performance in the film is given by Martine Bartlett, who plays Sybil’s mother. If there is one aspect of the film that plays with a little less depth than we might desire in a picture of this quality, it’s the conception/portrayal of Hattie Dorsett. The terrible, terrible things we learn about Sybil’s suffering at the hands of her mother nearly wipe away our hesitation in accepting Bartlett’s purely villainous performance, but because it is the one character in the film that feels less than fully three-dimensional, it can’t help but also work against our acceptance of what we are shown.
It’s appropriate to point out that, for better or worse, content restrictions of the time would have forbidden filmmakers from even talking about (much less displaying) the fullest range of the vile abuses blamed for triggering Sybil’s illness; the movie, as shocking as it is by the end, merely scratches the surface of the wicked, unthinkable acts Sybil’s mother allegedly visited upon her child. By the same token, there are entire sections of the book that, while making no effort whatsoever to apologize for nor excuse Hattie’s behavior, nevertheless serve to humanize her in a way the film does not—and more adequately demonstrate how devastating psychological wounds can be passed on from one generation to the next.
That element of the film is the most compelling to me. Whatever you may ultimately believe about the specifics of Sybil’s dilemma—one of the smartest and most challenging scenes in the film comes when Sybil herself tries to convince Dr. Wilbur that she has been lying about her “alters” all along, that her illness is nothing but an act—it is very easy for us to patch in to the idea that we all bear demons from our past that might, given enough oxygen, stay alive long enough to suffocate our true selves. By the end, we understand that it is not just the trauma of abuse but also the guilt that Sybil has carried with her for years that made her doubt her worth and believe that being loved was something she had to fear rather than welcome.
The scene late in the film where Sybil is made to realize that her being cared for was not simply something she dreamed is thoroughly devastating. The way it is staged is gloriously counter-intuitive; it’s the sort of moment between two characters you’d typically expect to take place while they’re making intense eye contact with one another, but because the exchange begins with Sybil being too frightened to look her caregiver in the eye and say the things she is about to say, Field’s character instead turns away, and this critical conversation plays out with both actresses facing the camera.
When Dr. Wilbur at last breaks through and Sybil breaks down, shedding genuine tears for the first time (she points out much earlier that her illness has made her unable to cry), that dam bursts not only for her but for us, too. It is not the very end of the story in the film, but it is the moment we realize that Sybil is on her way; not just towards being happy, a state we can all expect to ebb and flow over the natural course of our days, but towards being free—a far more important and lasting condition that permits us to first live each day as our own, and therefore be capable of then existing for others as much as for ourselves.
As Sybil’s doctor points out to her patient with a reassuring story, sometimes a grain of sand that must be moved is simply too heavy for a single ant to lift, and requires the work of two. The best lesson we can take from Sybil, I think, is that whenever we are struggling, we should be prepared to accept that second ant’s assistance—and then, when that grain of sand we found too burdensome to move alone has been carried away, we march on to find the next member of the colony that might need some help with the heavy lifting.
Before I turn you over to the comments section to share your own thoughts about Sybil, I will recommend you invest the small amount of time it will take to have a look at this short video. It was first shown to me quite a while ago, but I recalled it immediately as I allowed the movie’s themes to marinate in my mind: