Sybil 30th Anniversary Special
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
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
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.