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Television Review

In remake of 'Sybil,' less depth and less personality

Jessica Lange and Tammy Blanchard star in CBS's two-hour movie 'Sybil.' Jessica Lange and Tammy Blanchard star in CBS's two-hour movie "Sybil." (chris reardon/cbs)
Email|Print|Single Page| Text size + By Matthew Gilbert
Globe Staff / June 7, 2008

Why? Dunno.

The motive behind a remake is usually related to the marketability of the familiar brand name - selling this fall's "90210," for example, has already been a breeze for the CW. The motive behind CBS's remake of "Sybil," the haunting 1976 TV movie that established Sally Field as more than a sitcom-weight performer, is hazier. Why bother taking on a classic with limited popular potential when the remake is doomed to pale creatively next to the original?

I'm thinking maybe this retelling of the true story, tonight at 8 on Channel 4, was hatched to give actress Tammy Blanchard a big vehicle to suit her big talent. Blanchard won deserved raves and a 2001 Emmy for her uncanny turn as the young Judy in "Life With Judy Garland: Me and My Shadows," and she does an equally able job as Sybil, a woman with multiple personality disorder. She morphs chameleon-like from one of Sybil's 16 personalities to another, gliding through a few dozen character traits with the effortlessness of a channel surfer flipping stations. There are moments when Blanchard, looking like singer Norah Jones here, seems to be engaging in an Acting Exercise, but overall, she's affecting.

Otherwise, this "Sybil" doesn't quite justify itself. Two hours long, compared with the four-hour original, it hurries through the unfolding of Sybil's illness and oversimplifies - in flashbacks and during Sybil's visit back home - the childhood factors that led to the fracturing of her identity. Oddly, the CBS movie is less sophisticated than the original, despite the fact that so much progress has been made during the past 30 years in our understanding of both mental illness and child abuse. The remake feels more like a sketch of a troubled life than a fully realized portrait, which also detracts from its power to break your heart.

The big draw for me was the promise of seeing Jessica Lange pick up the role of Sybil's psychiatrist, Dr. Wilbur, from Joanne Woodward. There's something about Lange that is magnetic - her Gena Rowlands-like ability to seem both intensely fragile and, somehow, quite brave. She has failed to follow up her rich early dramatic performances in movies such as "Men Don't Leave" and "Blue Sky" with memorable work, but I keep hoping she'll blow us away again one of these days. As Dr. Wilbur, she is compassionate and persistent enough, but little more. We see her frustrated by her colleagues' belief that Sybil's illness is female hysteria, but those scenes don't reveal any different facets of Wilbur. As Sybil's mother in flashbacks, JoBeth Williams is merely a gorgon.

Over the years, a few experts have questioned Wilbur's diagnosis of Sybil, as well as the way the case was shaped by writer Flora Rheta Schreiber for her book "Sybil," on which the movies are based. The best way to have gone back to "Sybil" might have been to dramatize the way Wilbur worked and Schreiber wrote, or to go back to the case in reaction to all the controversy. To merely restate the original with less depth is, alas, an unnecessary exercise.

Matthew Gilbert can be reached at gilbert@globe.com. For more on TV, visit boston.com/ae/tv/blog/.

Sybil

Starring: Tammy Blanchard, Jessica Lange, JoBeth Williams

On: CBS, Ch. 4

Time: Tonight, 8-10

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