The film was Sybil, the original 1976 TV-movie based on the 1973 best-selling book by author Flora Rheta Schreiber (whose previous book was called Your Child’s Speech and whose only other work was The Shoemaker, about a schizophrenic serial killer) about a woman, whose real name was Shirley Ardell Mason but whom Schreiber renamed “Sybil,” party to protect her identity and partly to evoke the Sybils, the multi-voiced prophetesses of Greek mythology. The real Sybil (Shirley) had the mother of all dysfunctional childhoods; she grew up in a Wisconsin farm village, and while her dad was relatively sympathetic (though ineffectual), mom, Hattie, was almost literally the parent from hell. A paranoid schizophrenic herself, Hattie alternated between occasional bouts of tenderness and monumental rages in which she would give her daughter cold-water enemas and insist that she hold the water in while she sang and played on the piano (she was a frustrated pianist who had hoped for a concert career, hopes dashed when her sister died and she had to return to the family’s farm). She would also stick knitting needles and other similar objects up her daughter’s cunt, telling her all the while that this was because when she grew up men would be sticking things up her and she’d better get used to it now.
Sybil got turned into two TV-movies: this one, which became legendary for the casting of Sally Field as Sybil (before that Field had only done stupid, banal TV shows like Gidget and The Flying Nun: her performance won an Emmy Award and convinced film producers that she could handle tough dramatic roles like the title character in Norma Rae, for which she won the Academy Award and gave the infamous acceptance speech in which she cooed, “You like me! You really, really like me!”), and a mediocre 2007 remake by Norman Stephens Productions for the Lifetime channel that basically turned the story into yet another woman-in-peril genre piece (and which was only half as long — this one originally ran 198 minutes and was shown in two parts, though the DVD times out at 187 minutes, likely because there was a recap of part one at the start of part two and that wasn’t needed on a disc that spliced the two parts together and showed them as one movie).
The extra length certainly benefited the story — at times this movie seems like a tough slog, not only because it’s long but also because it’s awfully claustrophobic (at least half of it takes place in the office of Sybil’s psychiatrist, Dr. Cornelia Wilbur, and much of the parts that don’t are in the room Sybil herself lives in and in the room in the adjoining building her sometimes-boyfriend Richard Loomis) and it deals so relentlessly, and almost exclusively, with the darker sides of human nature. Field had to fight for the part of Sybil; at first the producers wanted Joanne Woodward because she’d already successfully played a victim of multiple personality disorder in The Three Faces of Eve nearly 20 years earlier (and won an Academy Award for doing so), but Woodward turned it down — imdb.com’s entry on Sybil doesn’t specify why, but it was almost certainly because she realized she was too old for the part by then and instead she insisted that she’d do the movie, but only if she played Dr. Wilbur rather than Sybil herself — which she did, magnificently, though as with Joan Crawford’s role in Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? Woodward’s good work here tended to be overshadowed by the bravura performance of her co-star. (When Sybil was remade I was hoping the new producers would have had the wit to cast Field as the therapist, continuing the daisy chain of the two roles, but they used Jessica Lange instead — perhaps because she’d already played a crazy woman in Frances.)
The film also featured important behind-the-scenes roles for two people prominently associated with James Dean — writer Stewart Stern, who wrote Rebel Without a Cause, and composer Leonard Rosenman, who did the music for both Rebel and East of Eden — and though Stern clearly shaped Schreiber’s material into screenplay form, playing fast and loose with the chronology to cut and paste the book into a structure suitable for a movie, he did his job well and provided the film’s excellent actors with material that played to their strengths. Sybil is a fascinating film mainly because of the acting, though the usually stage-bound director Daniel Petrie also turned in a fantastic job, rising above his training in theatre and live TV and making a movie out of this material, including some suspense and even horror sequences rivaling anything in films billed as horror movies or thrillers. Sally Field’s performance is a tour de force, rivaling Woodward’s fine work in The Three Faces of Eve (after Sybil Christine Sizemore, the real “Eve,” wrote a book in which she claimed to have had 26 personalities to Sybil’s 16) and Carole Lombard’s magnificent performance in the 1933 film Supernatural (in which her soul is taken over by that of a convicted murderess; it’s not clinically a multiple-personality movie but it similarly gives a female star a tour de force role playing two radically different personalities), utterly credible in her ability to switch personalities literally on a dime (at one point Woodward as the therapist addresses her as the “wrong” personality and then apologizes: “I’m sorry, Peggy, but you popped out so fast … ”).
Woodward is also excellent, particularly in the scenes in which she worries that she’s getting too close to Sybil, too wrapped up in her delusional system and acting too much like a mother rather than a therapist. Richard Loomis is played by the ill-fated Brad Davis (he died of complications from AIDS in 1991 at age 41 and complained about Hollywood’s hypocrisy, in which prominent producers appeared at AIDS benefits and signed charity appeals but discriminated against hiring anybody who might actually have it), who’s got an appropriately dorky-looking face but a great body and an impressive basket (which director Petrie shows us quite a lot of!), and he’s fully credible as a basically nice guy who tries to unlock Sybil’s affections but finds the relationship too much for him when she — or, rather, one of her “alters” — tries to commit suicide one night. And while I found myself wishing that the producers would have cast Joan Crawford as Sibyl’s mother — she was still alive then, and let’s face it, she would have been playing herself! — little-known actress Martine Bartlett turned in a fantastic job and made her performance indelible. I hadn’t seen this version of Sybil since it was new (and even “in the day” I think I only caught part one), but despite the rather lame ending (revelations Schreiber spaced out throughout her book are jammed together at the end to provide a “surprise” finish and a neat movie-cliché explanation of why Sybil dissociated) it holds up beautifully and, while I want the world of movies to express more than just the direst of human emotions as is the case here, this is definitely a movie that takes a fantastic story and does it justice.
Incidentally, there’ve been allegations that the story of Sybil is “fantastic” in more ways than one: psychiatrists and psychologists have debated the existence and prevalence of multiple personality disorder (now called “dissociative identity disorder”) for decades. When Dr. Wilbur was treating Sybil she got criticized by male doctors for having taken an ordinary case of hysteria and either consciously or unconsciously tricked her into believing she had multiple personalities, and afterwards, as the rate of multiple personality disorder diagnoses soared up, some therapists were accused of taking garden-variety schizophrenics or bipolars and diagnosing them with multiple personality disorder in hopes their case would be the next Three Faces of Eve or Sybil, generating a best-selling book and an award-winning hit movie. The debates still rage — as reflected in the various editions of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual (DSM), which reflects the votes of psychological associations as to what is and isn’t a mental illness (and merely the fact that those definitions have to be voted on is evidence that the whole category of “mental illness” is largely subjective and doesn’t have the clarity of symptoms/diagnosis/treatment we expect in the world of physical illnesses), from the flat-out acceptance of multiple personality disorder in the second DSM to much more guarded criteria (DSM-III lumped it in with other dissociative disorders and DSM-IV renamed it “dissociative identity disorder”) in more recent editions. Both during her lifetime and since, Dr. Wilbur has been accused of professional malpractice, from allegedly suggesting multiple personalities to Sybil as a metaphor for understanding her condition to outright planting false memories in her hapless head, and though the real Shirley Mason may have got over the most obvious symptoms of her dissociation she didn’t have much of a life after that: she died in 1991 in Lexington, Kentucky, where she’d worked as an art teacher but otherwise had been a recluse with no contact with other human beings outside her work in the classroom.