Review - Sybil (DVD-2006)
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Sybil 30th Anniversary Special Edition (DVD-2006)

Warner Home Video

Reviewed by Tim Sika


 “My god, Sybil.  What did that monster do to you?  What happened in the green kitchen?”


The answer to these questions (posed by Joanne Woodward as noted psychiatrist Dr. Cornelia Wilbur) will linger long after the end credits roll on Sybil, the 1976 landmark, critically acclaimed television movie depicting the extraordinary real life of a young woman suffering from multiple personality disorder; and now available in a new and superlative 30th Anniversary 2-disc special edition DVD from Warner Home Video.


Sybil was a breakthrough, role-of-a-lifetime for actress Sally Field who, according to the DVD extra “Examining Sybil” was the last actress to audition for the role.  Considered a joke, she blew away the writer, co-star Woodward, and the director with her command of dramatic technique and exceptional grasp of the role after a mere couple scenes, erasing any thoughts of the once serious considerations held for Patty Duke, Natalie Wood and Lily Tomlin).  Known prior for her skill as a light comic actress in charming TV sitcoms like Gidget and The Flying Nun, the role of a woman with 16 separate personalities, sadistically and sexually abused as a child by her schizophrenic, religiously twisted mother, announced to all the world the astonishing range and depth of Fields’ talent. Sybil not only won her an Emmy Award for Outstanding Lead Actress in a Drama, but was followed three years later by an Academy Award for Best Actress for Norma Rae, and a second Oscar five years after that for Best Actress for Places In The Heart.


Directed by last minute replacement Daniel Petrie (of Eleanor and Franklin and Resurrection fame) and scripted by Rebel Without A Cause screenwriter Stewart Stern from the novel by Flora Rheta Schreiber, Sybil was strong stuff for network television in the seventies. Originally aired as a 2-part 4 hour mini series for television it barely made it into production because of the lack of a star name (Audrey Hepburn was briefly attached to the project) and the risky nature of its subject matter.  The filmmakers were ultimately able to enlist the services of Joanne Woodward (a close friend of the writer’s) whose involvement insured a green light by the network.


The final result of Sybil is a stellar example of what the media is capable, that rarity, when talent, creativity, commitment and determination converge, using the limitation and restriction, of what is essentially a mass entertainment medium. 


Petrie directs with a sensitivity and confidence which is nothing short of astonishing given his eleventh hour involvement.  Allowing the style of the film to be dictated by the superbly written Stewart Stern script, and particularly the technical demands of Field’s performance, what emerges is one of the better made-for-television movies, certainly one which can solidly stand on its own as a theatrical release, and one of TV’s finest hours.


While the print used for this release is far from perfect this is the best the film has looked in ages.  In addition 70 minutes of informative never-before-seen special features are included on the second disc including a three part documentary entitled “Examining Sybil” which recounts the history of the making of the film with exclusive interviews with cast members, writer Stewart Stern; producer Peter Dunne, and close friends of the real Sybil; a short piece on her taped therapy sessions, and how they were used to create the film’s script; and “The Paintings of Sybil,” a gallery of her never-before-seen artwork. 


Now, finally available in its original full-length broadcast version of 187 minutes Sybil is a memorable, brutal, heart-breaking, powerful, disturbing, and sad (but ultimately hopeful—and moving) story of a survivor.  This beautifully produced 30th Anniversary, 2-disc Special Edition DVD from Warner Home Video more than amply reminds us of the critical and viewer acclaim received by the film three decades ago, and serves as a confirmation that television audiences, given the chance, will embrace quality, well-told stories about the dark recesses of the human soul, and the personal triumph over seemingly insurmountable odds.



2006 Tim Sika/ Celluloid Dreams



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