The word "landmark" is fairly used in the case of Sybil
: this 1976 TV movie brought new frankness to television, it raised the quality bar for the made-for-television movie, and it utterly changed the career of a future Oscar-winning actress. The film was based on the bestselling nonfiction book about a multiple-personality patient and her exhaustive therapy. It opens with a brilliant series of scenes that suggest how a young woman named Sybil (Sally Field) experiences unexplained blackouts, which brings her to the attention of a psychiatrist, Dr. Wilbur (Joanne Woodward). The film unfolds around the searching therapy sessions, laced with flashbacks to Sybil's toxic childhood. There's also a tentative romance between the lonely Sybil and a manchild (Brad Davis) who lives across the alley. Most notably, of course, there are the appearances of Sybil's alternate personalities, who express her strangled emotional life. Stewart Stern's sensitive script seems to flow organically from one scene to the next, and director Daniel Petrie frequently allows the camera to observe the acting acrobatics in long, challenging takes.
Woodward, who won an Oscar for playing a multiple-personality patient in The Three Faces of Eve, is all nurturing warmth as the steadfast doctor. But really this film was a sober coming-out party for Sally Field, who astonished viewers at the time by erasing all memories of Gidget and The Flying Nun, the bubblegum roles she'd mostly been known for. Field's work is anguished but non-actor-y, and despite the character's hidden personalities, she seems as clear as day in her performance. The production won four Emmys, not surprisingly including nods for Field, Stern, and Outstanding Special (Drama).
The 187-minute movie takes up one disc; the second disc has informative featurettes about the making of the film. Examining Sybil is an absorbing hour-long documentary with comments from Field and Woodward, as well as executive producer Peter Dunne. It is dominated by the spellbinding storytelling of Stewart Stern, who developed the screenplay by spending time with the real Dr. Wilbur and listening to tapes of her sessions with Sybil. His tale of Sally Field's unlikely audition triumph is a small movie in itself. The Paintings of Sybil presents a generous selection of paintings by the real Sybil (who became a professor of art), along with recollections by one of her friends. Something listed on the DVD cover as "Sybil Therapy Session" is misleadingly titled, suggesting some kind of actual footage or transcript of the real Sybil and her treatment; in fact, it's Stewart Stern describing the harrowing process of listening to the doctor's tapes. The real Sybil (now deceased) remains protected, as she should. --Robert Horton