Directed by Daniel Petrie
Written by Flora Rheta Schreiber (book), Stewart Stern(teleplay)
Starring Sally Field and Joanne Woodward
Cinematography by Mario Tosi
Sybil goes against the grain of most post-1950’s film – but especially 1970’s film – in that it presents psychiatry as a legitimate, helpful, and productive profession. The movie follows the trajectory of many films about psychiatry in that it exploits psychoanalysis as easy way to motivate flashbacks, present an exposition of past events, and frame the narrative as a kind of mystery. Unlike most movie psychiatrists of the era, however, Dr. Wilbur is almost perfect, while still possessing enough flaws to be a fully realized character. She nurtures Sybil, believes in her illness when she herself does not, responds to a number of 3 a.m. emergency phone calls, and even takes a trip from her New York office to Sybil’s old home in the midwest in order to investigate her childhood trauma.
She presents herself to Sybil as strong and stable, but her vulnerabilities crop up whenever she meets with her clinical supervisor. Through those meetings and phone calls we gather that Dr. Wilbur’s extreme interest in Sybil can sometimes conflict with the efficacy of her treatment. Despite her supervisor’s warning not to “fall in love with her [Sybil’s] illness”, she fixes Sybil peanut butter sandwiches with milk, tells her she loves her, gives her hugs and kisses, and pushes her to remember things she’s not ready to confront yet due to her own overeagerness. At times, it seems as though Dr. Wilbur might be the real protagonist of the film, since her role as the curious observer most closely mirrors our experience as viewers.
Although the film’s origins as a made-for-TV miniseries are quite obvious from the serialized structuring and 4:3 aspect ratio, there were certainly times in which I felt absorbed not only in the story but also the filmmaking. The editing evokes the sense of “losing time” that Sybil experiences by creating a false sense of continuity between shots that actually turn out to be cleverly linked by association rather than time. The use of Sybil’s reflection, in which other actors play her alternate personalities in the mirror, is a surprisingly powerful and disturbing technique. The film even manages to avoid explicitly clueing the audience in on the existence of Sybil’s alters before she herself is made aware of them. When voices emanate from Sybil’s apartment, for example, the filmmaker shows us only the exterior of the door. It seems almost as though Sybil might not be alone. All of these techniques place us firmly in Sybil’s subjective experience.
Although in many cases the film feels a bit too warm and fuzzy given the disturbing content (which includes descriptions and depictions of various forms of torture that Sybil was subjected to by her mother, including an amateur operation at the age of four to render her permanently infertile), it also avoided some pitfalls. For example, the perfect boy next door, whose playful demeanor complements Sybil’s repression, doesn’t rescue her with love. He saves Sybil from a suicide attempt initiated by one of the alters, but doesn’t stick around much after that. He overhears Sybil’s wish that he go away until she’s better, and without mentioning it to her he leaves the city. It would appear that they never see each other again after that, and I think the film resonates more because of it; there are real stakes for Sybil’s improvement, including her ability to form relationships.
Ultimately, the film is notable mainly for the performances of its two female leads. Sally Field’s histrionics, surprisingly enough, never come across as remotely funny, even when she plays a little boy. The various personalities are clearly separate in terms of mannerisms and diction, but there’s an uncanny way in which they all feel like part of the same person. Having recently seen Toni Collette’s equally brilliant portrayal of the same disorder on Showtime’s, United States of Tara, I almost felt that a comically exaggerated separation between personalities was the only way to render the disease in an entertaining narrative. Sybil proved me wrong, and its seemingly earnest attempt at veracity is something rarely seen when applied to mental illness and the psychiatric profession.