Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Sybil (LIfetime, 2007)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2009 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

Charles and I settled into our room and I ran him the movie Sybil which I’d recently recorded off the Lifetime channel. I had read the book Sybil in the 1970’s and seen the TV-movie (the 1976 production starring Joanne Woodward as psychiatrist Dr. Cornelia Wilbur and Sally Field as Sibyl), or at least the first half of it, back then, but I hadn’t encountered the story since and when I saw this on Lifetime’s schedule I thought it would be interesting to see it again. Surprise! What Lifetime showed turned out to be not the 1976 Sibyl but a 2007 remake with Jessica Lange as Dr. Wilbur and someone named Tammy Blanchard as Sibyl, which began with a title announcing that Sybil Dorset(t) — the entry on this version lists Sybil’s last name with just one “t” but her mother’s last name with two — was actually a pseudonym cooked up by the 1973 book’s author, Flora Rheta Schreiber, to cover up her identity and protect her (though I also couldn’t help but wonder if Schreiber was deliberately picking that name as an analogy to the multi-voiced prophetess Sybil in Greek mythology).

Her real name was Shirley Ardell Mason and she died of breast cancer in Lexington, Kentucky at age 75 on February 26, 1998 after living there for years as a recluse, teaching art students in her home but otherwise having little or no interaction with humanity. It might have been trippy if the makers of this version, Norman Stephens Productions, had cast Sally Field as the psychiatrist — that would have continued the daisy chain that the makers of the first Sybil had started by casting Woodward, who’d played a multiple personality herself in her Academy Award-winning turn in the 1957 film The Three Faces of Eve — but at least Lange had played a mental patient in the Frances Farmer biopic Frances and therefore she could do a similar progression to Woodward’s from playing patient to playing therapist.

Alas, while the 1976 Sybil was a two-part TV-movie scheduled over four hours, this one was only a two-hour single-parter — and the story really seemed rushed in the shorter time frame — and the cause wasn’t helped by Blanchard’s performance, which was perfectly competent where Field’s had been incandescent. (Blanchard is a quite decent actress but I haven’t seen her land any major movies lately or win any Academy Awards and thank the Academy voters for really, really liking her.) At least Lange was quite good as the therapist, especially in the scenes in which she gets to assert herself as a woman and answer the sexist cracks made by a rival male doctor who referred Sibyl to her in the first place and thought Sibyl was a garden-variety hysteric and Dr. Wilbur was implanting in her the delusion that she had all these alternative personalities.

Also standing out in the cast is JoBeth Williams as Sibyl’s mother Hattie, a schizophrenic herself (the one commonality in patients with multiple personality disorder — or, as it’s been renamed, “dissociative identity disorder” — seems to be being raised by parents who are thoroughly bonkers themselves) and one who could have given Joan Crawford lessons in the parenting-from-hell department; the film shows her beating Sybil for breaking a valuable crystal dish (breaking glass becomes so much of a motif in the film that Sybil breaks Dr. Wilbur’s windows often enough that one suspects the doctor’s glazier gives her a quantity discount, and in one attempt at a date with a boy named Ramon [Fab Filippo] he gives her a beautiful crystal unicorn which Sybil gratefully accepts and then one of the other personalities smashes to the ground), giving her ice-water enemas, chaining her to table and piano legs and beating her if she lost bladder or bowel control, and raping her with buttonhooks and other household items.

The book made it clear — which this film does not — that mom’s stated reason for doing the last of those was, “Men are going to be sticking things into you all your life. You need to get used to it.” People who do this sort of thing usually don’t have fulfilling sex lives, but there was nothing wrong or abnormal in the sexual part of Sybil’s parents’ relationship — just one of the many ambiguities in this tale, about whose veracity psychologists are still arguing even though both Sybil and Dr. Wilbur died in the 1990’s. The rest of the 2007 Sybil transmuted this fascinating story into a typical Lifetime disease-of-the-week tale, photographed in murky past-is-brown cliché by Donald M. Morgan, and written and directed with cool efficiency by John Pielmeier and Joseph Sargent, respectively.