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Cybill Disobedience

posted by Mickey on 12/19/02

Old Shep

There are a lot of good books in the world, so I can't really explain why I decided I would read Cybill Shepherd's autobiography, "Cybill Disobedience." Nevertheless, for the past couple of nights, that is exactly what I have been reading. And, frankly, I hope no-one minds if take off my hat and tip it in the direction of Cybill Shepherd, because she really has produced a most entertaining memoir.

I knew it was going to be a great read on page 8 when she described her particular annus horribilus, 1999. "It was a clusterfuck of a year." Here is someone with a gift for memorable expression. So, to begin this post, I wanted to look at some of the other magic Cybill has been able to work with the English language, before turning to the fascinating topic of the status of Cybill Shepherd in the non-literary branches of the arts and entertainment world.

A little later in the same paragraph I have already quoted from, she writes about how one of the bad things that happened to her during 1999, apart from the cancellation of her sitcom, "Cybill," was that she had to have an operation after learning that her intestines were twisted into something resembling fusilli marinara. But there was even worse to follow, as Cybill relates:

"As it happened my worst turncoat was much closer at hand, and a few months later, with stunning surgical precision (last metaphor, I promise) I was eviscerated by the man I thought would be sharing my dotage and my denture cup at the Old Actors' Home."

The really classy bit about that sentence is the parenthesis. As most people would know, a metaphor is a figure of speech where a writer compares something with something else. The difference between a metaphor and simile is that in a metaphor the comparison is implied, rather than stated; whereas with a simile the comparison is formally expressed. When Cybill says her intestines looked like fusilli marinara, she is using a simile. When she said 1999 was a clusterfuck, she was using a metaphor. She didn't literally mean it WAS a clusterfuck. She meant it was a year that was confusing and confronting and intense.

The English language is so full of metaphors that most writers are barely aware they are using them, much of the time. So Cybill is really being quite brave, stylistically, when she promises, only a couple of pages into her book, that she is going to forsake metaphor altogether. But then, there is a dramatic payoff, only three words later, when she reveals she was eviscerated by the man she wanted to grow old with. Since she has just promised she won't be using any more metaphors, the stunned reader is confronted with the fact that this must actually have happened. This man has LITERALLY removed her entrails. She has ACTUALLY been disembowelled. In the circumstances, producing any sort of memoir at all is surely a highly creditable performance.

I read the rest of the book waiting for further details of this traumatic incident, but, fortunately or unfortunately, she shed no further light on the circumstances in which this two-timing ratfink of a bloke removed her intestines. I'll tell you what though: it is one of the great sentences in the language.

That sentence, once again:

"As it happened my worst turncoat was much closer at hand, and a few months later, with stunning surgical precision (last metaphor, I promise) I was eviscerated by the man I thought would be sharing my dotage and my denture cup at the Old Actors' Home."


On the very same page, there is more great writing from Cybill. She writes:

"There's a Dixie Chicks song with a wise and placating lyric that goes 'You gotta make big mistakes'. I've made my share, and I ask for no jeremiads."

The sense I initially got from those couple of sentences was that Cybill was expressing something along the lines of "I've made some big mistakes but I make no excuses for that." Or "I've made some mistakes but I don't ask for any particular indulgence from my readers." Naturally, to try to clear the matter up, I reached for my dictionary. I learned the word "jeremiad" means a lamentation, or a lugubrious complaint. I seem to recall there was quite a tradition of jeremiad-slinging in the puritan communities in the early European history of New England. To be perfectly honest, the meaning of the word didn't quite seem to fit into the context of what Cybill was talking about. It was almost as if Cybill didn't know the meaning of the word she had used so confidently, or was searching for another word that she just could not quite put her finger upon, and so she bunged down "jeremiad" as an approximation for what she was trying to express. Since it is impossible to imagine Cybill Shepherd writing so carelessly, however, I now believe she had a very specific and careful emotion to express, ie. although she has made some big mistakes she expects no lamentations or lugubrious complaints in reference to them. Fair enough too, and quite beautifully put.

She was wearing a white dress. She appeared like an angel out of this open sewer. Out of this filthy mass. She is alone: They cannot touch her.

Here are some more extracts, which I think demonstrate the mastery of letters that Cybill possesses. These extracts are just to give you an idea of the style in which she writes. I won't gloss them too much, because I don't want to detract from the prose itself, which is the main attraction, but here and there I will add my two cents worth.

"For the great French writer Marcel Proust, the door of memory was opened by the taste of a madeleine cookie. For me, it's Dr Pepper: one sip and I am returned to that summer house on a slender tributary of the Tennessee River in Alabama called Shoals Creek."

"In the early summer mornings, before the humidity would slap down like a biblical plague, Da-Dee and I got up before the others to sit in penumbral shadow on the long screened porch and watch the choppy surface of the water become streaked with first light, which looked like thousands of glittering broken mirrors, so bright that we had to squint." [A penumbra is a shadow, so talking about "penumbral shadow" is, strictly, tautological. She might as well have written "shadowy shadow" or "penumbral penumbra". Nevertheless, it would be a impoverished soul indeed who would launch into a jeremiad about this sentence, which, with its gentle murmuring cadence shows what Marcel Proust might have come up with if he had only spent his time slurping up Dr Pepper 24/7, instead of sitting around wheezing and brushing cookie crumbs off his clothes.]

"On Leno I used my hands to approximate the position of breasts that are not surgically lifted. They're so much more versatile with age- you can have them up, you can have them down, side to side, round and round, or you can swing them over your shoulder like a continental soldier."

"After my notices for 'At Long Last Love,' it took granite ovaries to call the great jazz saxophonist Stan Getz and ask him to collaborate on an album." [Possibly one of those forbidden metaphors].

"Peter [Bogdanovich] took every opportunity to sit at the feet of great filmmakers, and I usually got the big toe."

"One night … I was … talking on the phone to my gynaecologist. We were admitting that we were attracted to each other when he was married and I was with Peter, and I told him I'd been close to having an orgasm when he put in my IUD."

Having satisfied myself (and I hope all of my readers) that Cybill Shepherd is an arresting writer of the English language, it is probably time to move away from a purely stylistic examination of her book. In fact, the stylistic peculiarities of "Cybill Disobedience" are more noticeable in the early chapters where Cybill is describing her youth in Memphis, Tennessee, than in the bitchy showbiz gossip of the later chapters. When I had read all the way through, thirsty for more, I even read the acknowledgements:

"I owe this book, and much more, to the creative juices, tender asylum, and occasional galvanizing cattle pod of many people: [a list of about 100 people appears, the last of whom is] Aimee Lee Ball, for helping me put into words what was in my heart and giving it gravitas."

At that point, I turned again to the title page, and discovered, that in fact the author of "Cybill Disobedience" is Cybill Shepherd "with" Aimee Lee Ball. A ghostwriter! My best guess would be that Cybill herself was probably responsible for the more recherché childhood reminiscence stuff, but at some point turned the project over to Aimee Ball to churn out the more craftspersonlike but less idiosyncratic content with some sort of instruction such as, "Don't forget to say I almost had an orgasm while my gynaecologist was inserting my IUD, but give it a bit of gravitas, OK? And make sure you don't use any metaphors". Or I could be completely wrong and the exact opposite could be the case, in which case all those kind remarks I made about the style should properly be addressed to Ms Ball.

Beyond a peculiar way with words, one of the things that emerges from the early chapters of the book is a quite astonishing pettiness of character. Cybill speaks a couple of times about her sadness that she hasn't been able to maintain friendly relationships in adult life with her brother and sister. She also mentions all the presents her brother got one Christmas (electric trains, a cross Country turnpike set, a Rin Tin badge and a Fort Apache) whereas poor Cybill only got talcum powder and a bath mitt. Honestly, I don't have the least notion what a Fort Apache is, but listing it on the inventory strikes an authentic note of childhood grievance. For someone who asks for no jeremiads, Cybill can certainly produce one. "He got all that other cool stuff AND a Fort Apache, and all I got [trembling lip] was some talcum powder and … [bitter tears] and a bath mitt."

Another thing that clearly still rankles with Cybill is the poem incident. I'll let Cybill tell it herself, because she tells it best:

"I can't escape the conviction that fate has something to do with appearance, with the perception of personality or merit based on veneer. I earned my living on my looks for a long time, and it taught me that the accident of beauty infers resentment- why should something that requires no effort or skill be rewarded? People seldom let their envy show so blatantly as a teaching assistant in an English class who once gave me a C for a poem that her supervisor later upgraded to an A+."

It is a crying shame that the poem in question is not produced, but I for one, don't doubt that it was A+ material. As for the hag who dismissed it with a C, I hope this butt-faced bitch got all the unhappiness and misery that was coming to her for the remainder of her life. I hope she can't sleep and if she does I hope she dreams about it. And when she dreams I hope she screams about it.

The glorious beauty of Cybill Shepherd is treated as a given throughout the book; and, in a Marcia Brady kind of way, it is true that Cybill Shepherd was not an unattractive young woman. She won the Miss Teen Memphis beauty pageant, and was awarded Miss Congeniality at the Miss Teen USA competition in the mid 1960s, and worked as a model before going into films; and none of that was presumably a career option for the bush pig of a teaching assistant who was sitting there handing out a derisive C grade to a poem that a less hideous person would have recognised as an A+. Personally, I must admit I am not particularly drawn to the same kind of good looks as the judges at beauty pageants. It isn't that the girls are necessarily repulsive. It's just they often don't look very interesting. So there you go. If I had been Travis Bickle, I wouldn't have wandered into the campaign headquarters and asked Cybill Shepherd out because she was the most beautiful woman I had ever seen and taken her to see a porno movie as our first date. At certain times, when I was reading the book, I couldn't help but wonder whether the isolation Cybill has always felt because of her beauty and the envy she has experienced from less beautiful women might not perhaps have had some other source. Some of the reactions she describes on the part of these third parties are consistent with Cybill having the personality of a complete and utter bitch, rather than it just being a matter of everybody being jealous of her good looks. But, look, let's give her the benefit of the doubt here. Cybill's theme is that her beauty has been her gift and her curse, and she clearly has exerted a powerful attraction on a whole lot of men who didn't want to stay with her. One of the key anecdotes in the book (it recurs as a kind of lief motif every time Cybill wants to write about how gorgeous she is) is about how she tries to get her rich grandfather to buy her a horse and pay for riding lessons:

"'You go into the sitting room,' Moma told me in a conspiratorial whisper, 'and love up on Da-Dee's neck. He'll give you anything you want.' … Love up on Da-Dee's neck. More than any other fillip of memory, those words summon up the paramount message and mandate of my childhood: I was pretty, and my looks were a kind of currency. Nobody would care what I did, what I said, what I read, but beauty had magical powers, a kind of legerdemain especially effective with men."

How good looking is Cybill Shepherd? I'd give her a C, but readers who think I'm jealous because she writes better than I do, may want to re-grade her as an A+.

Apart from being about how pretty she is, most of "Cybill Disobedience" is about the various men Cybill has had sex with. There are some interesting names there: Elvis Presley and Peter Bogdanovich, between them, probably get the most space in the book. There is little evidence that W-D readers are particularly engrossed by Elvis Presley, but there can be little doubt that most visitors to this site have a keen interest in anything and everything Bogdanovich-related, so it is interesting to see how a young Cybill, writing in her personal journal in 1972, compared her two famous lovers. "Elvis's stupidity is rejuvenating against Peter's superiority. I don't think Peter takes me seriously, but going with him has a lot of prestige." Since Peter Bogdanovich would not produce his masterpiece, "Mask" for another dozen years or so, this was a prescient summation. I couldn't help but wonder if listening to Cybill go on and on about her A+ poem may not have inspired Peter Bogdanovich's treatment of Rocky Dennis's poem about the things he does and doesn't like. He probably only got a good mark for that poem because he was ugly.

Bruce Willis does not appear to have gotten all the way with Cybill when they were making "Moonlighting" together but he was a near miss. "We never did finish what we started in private, but anytime we had a kissing scene, he stuck a big camel tongue halfway down my throat."

Bruce Willis may have gotten away, but not Don Johnson. I know lots of W-D readers have a keen interest in what it would be like to have sex with Don Johnson. Here is the inside oil, from someone who has actually done it.

"We lasted a nanosecond on the porch and then rapidly progressed to my bed. It was like wolfing down a candy bar when you're starving- fast, furious, intense- and it was all over in five minutes."

"Cybill Disobedience" is a good book. Really, it is well worth reading, or stuffing into the stocking of someone you love to celebrate this festive season. There are lots of great anecdotes in it about Elvis and Orson Welles and Peter Bogdanovich and Robert de Niro and Bruce Willis and Christine Baranski that I haven't given away here, along with plenty more lubricious details of Cybill's sex life. OK, the style in which the book is written is a little odd, but that is not a bad thing by any means. It is good to have a distinctive style. To be honest, I cannot say that before reading her book, I had ever paid much attention to Cybill Shepherd. I had seen "Taxi Driver", of course, and some of the movies she had made with Peter Bogdanovich, and one or two others, but I had never really gotten into watching either "Moonlighting" or "Cybill," which are probably the productions for which she is most famous. Fans of these shows reckon Cybill is a gifted comedienne, and this may well be correct. In her best films, "The Last Picture Show" and "Taxi Driver" she plays vacant, shallow characters, and does so with sufficient aplomb that a casual viewer like myself could be forgiven for thinking she was vacant and shallow. She also puts in a fine performance in a movie called "The Lady Vanishes," which was a remake of one of Alfred Hitchcock's best movies. Compared with the original, of course, it is completely pointless, but as a picture in its own right, it isn't bad. In the couple of years that have gone by since writing her memoir, the name of this movie would be a pretty good description of Cybill's career. While spending a frustrating half-hour looking around the internet (unsuccessfully) for a picture of Cybill in "Taxi Driver" I learned she had a health scare with a melanoma earlier this year. That wasn't good to hear. It would be churlish not to send the compliments of the season to her, and the very best wishes for a full recovery. Still, a woman with no intestines and granite ovaries and breasts that she can fling over her shoulders like a continental soldier is clearly a tough old bird. And while I am passing around the cheer, I will take this opportunity to wish everybody a happy holiday season. I hope you get a Fort Apache, or whatever it is that is your heart's desire and will do no harm to others.


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