Tammy Blanchard earned an Emmy playing the young Judy Garland, and she's equally splendid in the title role of this delicately rendered retelling of "Sybil." Jessica Lange also shines in what's primarily a two-character piece under the capable direction of Joseph Sargent.
Tammy Blanchard earned an Emmy playing the young Judy Garland, and she’s equally splendid in the title role of this delicately rendered retelling of “Sybil,” whose previous incarnation more than three decades ago placed Sally Field in the Emmy-winner fraternity. Jessica Lange also shines in what’s primarily a two-character piece under the capable direction of Joseph Sargent, which CBS has inexplicably squandered during a black hole of summer scheduling. It’s a pity, since despite yeoman work all around, this handsome made-for will likely attract fewer viewers than the title character has personalities.
Given her own connection to onscreen mental illness in “Frances,” Lange is an inspired choice to play Dr. Cornelia Wilbur, the psychiatrist who treats Sybil, a young girl who flits in and out of personalities — a whopping 16 of them — the way the kids on “Gossip Girl” change outfits.
Sybil has retreated into these different characters in response to a horrifying childhood in which she was abused by her unstable mother (JoBeth Williams), and Blanchard convincingly captures what could otherwise play as camp. She’s equally convincing as the coquettish French girl, the frightened child or even the young boy that all inhabit Sybil’s fragile mind, with the creepy twist that each manifests unique artistic ability in her (or his) own style.
Set in the late 1950s, in treating Sybil, Wilbur must also struggle against the thinly veiled sexism of her male colleagues, foremost among them Dr. Atcheson (Ron White). At the time, multiple-personality disorder wasn’t a recognized malady, though it’s difficult to tell whether his frosty behavior represents genuine skepticism, professional envy, dismissing Wilber as a woman or a combination of all three.
Wilbur eventually hypnotizes Sybil, seeking to bring the discordant personalities within her into harmony. Sargent and screenwriter John Pielmeier handle the sessions between the two with meticulous care, garnished by judicious flashbacks that illustrate the mother’s ghastly behavior without being unduly graphic.
Although CBS has largely bailed out of the TV movie biz, “Sybil” is the sort of prestige project that deserves a better fate — especially since the airdate falls just outside the eligibility window for this year’s Emmys. Regardless, Blanchard has tackled another iconic role with a level of skill identifying her as a talent with personality(s) to spare.