The '70s were a golden age for TV movies, with a lot of the decade's "New Hollywood" artistry spilling over into nifty little telepics, rich with style and earthy realism. In some ways, the two-part 1976 miniseries Sybil marked the apex and the end of that era. Sally Field revived her career—previously buried by The Flying Nun—by playing a young woman suffering from a multiple-personality disorder, and Joanne Woodward plays the doctor who digs through Field's years of blackouts and memories of child abuse to find all the people living inside her. Journeyman TV director Daniel Petrie plunges deep into his heroine's psychosis, beginning the movie with a vertiginous, pinched helicopter shot of the New York City skyline, and using sudden time jumps early in the story to recreate Field's memory gaps (a condition she describes chillingly at one point, saying, "Once I woke up and I was two years older"). At a time when theaters were full of harrowing horror films like The Exorcist and Carrie, Petrie delivered a small-screen effort almost as disturbing.
Still, Sybil does have its flashes of retro kitsch. For every docu-realist scene of Field walking meekly through a seedy, imposing New York, there are almost as many of her fending off the advances of well-meaning neighbor and single dad Brad Davis, who makes his living by driving horse-drawn carriages and busking in front of Lincoln Center (in clown makeup, no less). The lightweight Davis is no match for Field, who shifts so easily from frightened little girl to coquettish extrovert to humorless scold that even Petrie's perpetually moving camera can't always keep up. Field's performance—so on-the-edge that it sometimes crosses the line—makes Sybil every bit as gripping now as it was 30 years ago. It's just a shame that the film's tremendous ratings success sent the wrong message to the networks, which by the end of the decade were attempting less raw-boned mini-cinema and making more of the simple heart-tuggers now dubbed "disease-of-the week features."
Key features: A second disc with lengthy, poorly lit interviews, covering the production and the real-life case on which Sybil was based.