Cybill Disobedience

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9780061030147: Cybill Disobedience

How I Survived Beauty Pageants, Elvis, Sex, Bruce Willis, Lies, Marriage, Motherhood, Hollywood, and the Irrepressible Urge to Say What I Think.

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About the Author:

Aimee Lee Ball has coauthored several books including No Time to Die with Liz Tilberis. She has written about health, politics, business, and the arts for many national magazines including New York, GQ, Harper's Bazaar, and the New York Times. She lives in New York City.

Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:

Chapter One"Who's the Fairest of Them All?"

People who have never lived through an earthquake assume that one of its salient features is noise -the sounds of splintering glass, the symphony of physical destruction, the uncanny moaning of buildings as steel and wood and concrete are strained to some implausible degree. But that's quickly over. Far more shocking is the eerie quietude: the power failure that eliminates the humming of air-conditioning and refrigerators, the absence of music, the traffic that has come to a standstill. It's as if a mute button has been pushed on the world. That's what it's like when a television series ends. The lights go out, the people scatter, the magic has died. And the Cybill show did not go gently. I did not go gently.

Over a thirty-year career, I had died before - cacophonous, public, psychically bloody deaths engineered at the box office and at the hands of critics-but this demise was singularly painful. I'd given my name and much of my identity to the series, blurring the line between real life and fiction, much more than is customary in television. (Murphy Brown was not called Candice, and the character didn't grow up with a wooden dummy for a brother.) Every door on our CBS soundstage had a plaque with CYBILL inscribed inside a blue chalk star, just like the one used under the opening title that pans across the Hollywood Walk of Fame. Gunsmoke was produced on that stage for eighteen years, but there was no trace of that iconic piece of American television history in the wings. As I drove off the lot for the last time, I knew how quickly my presence would evaporate, how soon the studio maintenance department would remove those plaques and the billboard-size CYBILL on the side of the stage.

The eulogies were not kind. While the real reasons for the show's demise were never made public, I was accused of professional paranoia and megalomania, of being, as Lady Caroline Lamb famously said of Lord Byron, "mad, bad and dangerous to know." I was labeled a jealous egomaniac, a self-promoting bitch, and a few other well-chosen words whose invocation would have gotten my mouth washed out with Camay in my Memphis childhood. I preserved all the poison-pen notices as a record, hard evidence of what I had survived and the proof that I wasn't paranoid. I had clearly made people exceedingly angry, committed some unpardonable transgression. It was not the first time.

What got me in trouble, what has always gotten me in trouble, was disobedience. On the Cybill show, I had been 57 different kinds of disobedient. From the beginning, my strategy was to challenge-always with humor-the conventional wisdom about "appropriate" subjects for television audiences. I was the first baby boomer to have a prime-time hot flash, and we skewered the injustice of a culture that pretends women over forty are invisible. I persuaded the writers to incorporate ideas from my own odyssey of discovery, like cultivating a reverence for three symbolic stages of a woman's life: maiden, mother, and crone. (Okay, okay, there's a brief cheerleader phase in there that can't be ignored.) I had the temerity to become a grandmother on American television, one experience not replicated in real life, but when my character cooed to her TV daughter, "And you even got married first!" it was a mocking reference to my own pregnancies before marriage. When my character's two ex-husbands happened to be in the living room just as her date showed up on the doorstep, art was mirroring my life, as it was in an episode about male impotence (delicately referred to on the show as "failing to perform").

Strange to think that these themes were considered radical by network executives and reviewers, but women who represent the cultural gamut of sizes' and ages aren't too welcome in any media. After nearly a decade of murmuring "I'm worth it" for L'Oreal, I was fired because my hair got too old -approximately as old as I was. It's okay for Robert Mitchum to get up early in the morning and look like Robert Mitchum, but it was not okay for me to wake up in the morning and look like Robert Mitchum. Fans are always asking why Bruce Willis and I don't reprise our Moonlighting roles for the big screen. The answer is: studio executives would consider me too old for him now.

With few exceptions, American television has become the Bermuda Triangle for females over forty. There was a wide variety of middle-aged women on the air in 1998, and they were all gone by 1999. Not only Cybill, but Murphy Brown, Ellen, Roseanne, Grace Under Fire, and Dr. Quinn, Medicine Woman all disappeared the same year. It's true that these shows had been around for a while and may have run their course, so this chorus of swan songs takes on a deeper significance when we see the replacements: Felicity, Dharma & Greg, Moesha, Ally McBeal, Sabrina the Teenage Witch, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, and those very skinny Friends. No one over thirty need apply.

But I had defied convention beyond my approach...

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