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Vivid, unsettling true story given enormous stature by Joanne Woodward and Emmy-winning Sally Field.
How does one survive, much less overcome, long-standing child abuse? Newscasts are littered with the more unusual, horrific stories - children imprisoned in closets or chained to beds with little more than food or water; tiny children dying in hot, sweltering autos or stuffed into car trunks while a parent works. In yesterday's paper alone, an archbishop of a progressive church was charged with the strangulation of a 15-year-old girl he sexually assaulted for years, while on the opposite page a woman and her boyfriend were charged with beating two of her children with a metal pipe, their battered bodies bearing the marks of years of abuse. How does a child get through this WHILE IT IS HAPPENING? Somehow, some way they MUST build up some sort of mental toughness or defense mechanism to combat the agony and fear - either by tuning out or systematically shutting down -- going into deep states of denial and emotional withdrawal. And then there is Sybil Dorsett...
Sally Field is unforgettable as the titular victim of incessant child abuse, a woman who dissolved into SIXTEEN separate and distinct personalities in order to cope with a mother who inflicted indescribable childhood tortures. She is nothing short of amazing, especially in her "dissociative" scenes as she morphs with lightning speed into one or more of her "inner family" -- a combative, self-assertive Peggy Lou, a mothering but suicidal Mary, a vivacious, ambitious Vicky, a frightened, thumb-sucking Sybil Ann, or even an athletically-inclined Mike. All of them personalities created and programmed unconsciously by Sybil to endure any situation she herself couldn't handle, and triggered by almost anything -- a hostile argument, piano music, certain colors, street sounds, even a word.
What is incredible about Field's performance as Sybil (not her real name) is the ability to tear down her own barriers to such an extent that she can revert into a flood of strange babblings or shockingly infantile behavior at the drop of a hat. It is such a compelling and all-consuming feat that these scenes come off almost improvisatory in style. One particular marvel of a scene has Sybil's psychologist discovering her patient, an artist by nature, lodged under a piano taken over by one of her more immature personalities, tormented by thunderous sounds of Dvorak and Beethoven, illustrating her torment on paper with brightly-colored crayons. It is to director Daniel Petrie's credit that he was able to create such a safe environment for Field to let herself go like this. With "Sybil," Field, who won an Emmy, forever dispelled any theories that she was a one-note actress trapped with a Gidget-like cuteness.
In an ironic bit of casting, Joanne Woodward essays the role of Sybil's psychologist, Dr. Cornelia Wilbur, who finally pinpoints Sybil's mental disability and starts her on the long, arduous journey of putting the "selves" back together. Woodward won an Academy Award decades earlier as a similar victim of MPD (multiple personality disorder) in a curious but ultimately heavy-handed and very dated film "The Three Faces of Eve." Woodward is superb here as a professional clearly out of her element but determined to find a light at the end of the tunnel for this poor, unfortunate girl.
The late Brad Davis, as an unsuspecting acquaintance who wants to get to know Sybil better, adds a tender, sympathetic chapter to Sybil's turbulent life, while William Prince and Jane Hoffman are compelling as Sybil's bloodless father and stepmother who offer puzzling, ignorant explanations to Sybil's "problem." Charles Lane has a significant scene as Sybil's small-town doctor (as a child) who failed to report his examination findings, and little Natasha Ryan, in flashback sequences, must be commended for reenacting the more harrowing details of Sybil's childhood torment. Jessamine Milner as Sybil's grandmother has a few affecting moments as a doting grandma who offers Sybil brief moments of respite.
However, the most chilling portrait of evil you'll ever witness on TV goes hands down to stocky, harsh-looking Martine Bartlett as Sybil's monster of a mother. She lends horrifying believability to the fragmented, unbalanced woman who gets sadistic pleasure out of her routine torturous acts. Bartlett, a respected stage actress little seen on film, was known for another bizarre but fascinating screen role as a crazy, self-abusing mental patient in "I Never Promised You a Rose Garden." As Hattie Dorsett, she displays subtle, calculating menace, which makes her even more terrifying, as she devises a number of "games" to inflict on her only child. Some of these scenes are extremely repelling and graphic in nature, but it is all handled as responsibly as possible, considering the actual incidents DID occur.
Hopefully seeing this dark, disturbing, but ultimately important TV-movie will inspire you to read Flora Rheta Schreiber's best selling book, which details Sybil's childhood, blackout episodes (the real Sybil once woke up finding out she had missed the entire sixth grade(!), therapy sessions, the battle of alter-egos for control of Sybil, and the subsequent unifying process, through the professional vantage point of Dr. Wilbur and with more depth. Trust me, you won't be able to put it down and you'll never question the boundaries and/or consequences of child abuse again.
WARNING - Don't rent the confusing, chopped-up two-hour version, also available on tape. This was a two-part, over three-hour long drama when initially shown and THIS version is what rates a "10."
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