She has savaged Hollywood with her kiss-and-tell revelations and put her sexual reputation on the line. But Cybill Shepherd has never been one to hold back.
April 23, 2000
Cybill Shepherd, actress and author of the book that is the talk of Los Angeles.
When Cybill Disobedience hit the bookshops across the US, po-faced gossip columnists screeched, how could she? You couldn't turn the TV on without a talk-show panel pummelling her, all their jaws stuck open in outrage. How could she name names like this, reveal sizes of penises, tell us that Bruce Willis had a camel tongue and that the Don Johnson experience was one that had to be wolfed down as quickly as eating a candy bar? How could she talk about how she put herself in the Cybill Shepherd sandwich-- sex with two men at once--and about the fried-peanut-butter sandwich that so often accompanied sex with Elvis?
The sexy stuff laced a fierce package--the journey of how Miss Teenage Memphis went from instant glamorous stardom as a nubile sexual threat in Peter Bogdanovich's The Last Picture Show, to an eight-year affair with the married director, for which she was lambasted. She was later a full-time player in the wild 1970s Hollywood and tells everything about who she played with. In the 1980s, she went on to spar with Bruce Willis as Maddie in the phenomenally successful television series Moonlighting.
The book details all the schemings, shenanigans and behind-the-scenes heat that went on. Then she gives us the schemings and shenanigans that went on backstage in Cybill, the life-imitates-art TV show that was one of the more beleaguered series of the 1990s (CBS pulled the show abruptly in 1998). Within the same six months her fiancé Robert Martin dumped her, her intestines twisted in a life-threatening way, she wound up with emergency surgery with a huge scar on the outside and God knows how big the scars are within. Well, we know how big the scars are, because she tells us in great graphic detail, not as a victim, but as a storm trooper.
Pages of press speculation and endless TV debate have made Cybill-bashing a national pastime. The gist of it is: "How could she be so sexually explicit when she has 12-year-old twins? How could she be so indiscreet? She'll never work on TV again. She must have wanted to self-destruct' And, more cruelly, "She's a 50-year-old actress. She just wants the last hurrah, something to whip up headlines on a flagging career.'
By the time I got to her white stucco, gated house in Encino, a suburb of LA, I was desperate to know some answers. I was expecting a dazzling siren, a brash southern belle with a cackly laugh, yet she filtered into her living room in a pink Hawaiian shirt and Zen-like quiet. "Since my sex life's been written about for years, I felt there was something to be said for telling it from my side. Certain stories had to be told, what I've been through to become who I am now.' Don't you fear that, because of the explicit nature of this book, you'll never work in TV again, and do you care? "Never work in TV again?" she puzzles, pauses. "Yeah, I definitely care. My experience is that the heads of studios and networks change rapidly. I've survived any number of them. I wouldn't like to think that out of fear I'd not tell the truth or say what I thought. I would do anything.'
Of course she wouldn't. As she herself says, she's survived many bloody deaths at the box office, been bludgeoned by critics, and, as for the Hollywood has-been, she says she's been that several times already. She sees her sexual explicitness as an entirely pragmatic and political move."I didn't get to be who I am without being honest. I had to include a lot of sex because sex was a lot to do with my life. We have an oversexualised culture in terms of the media, yet we're terrified of really talking about it, whether it's the menopause, or the sexual life of a woman, how we enjoy our bodies.'
She talks slowly and in long-winded, political sentences. She describes herself as a radical feminist, a term I haven't heard since the early 1980s. She didn't write a book about her sexual exploits from a self-destructive or headline-grabbing standpoint. She believes you talk about sex and diminish its power, and by doing that you diminish its power over you.
When she grew up in Memphis, beauty was power, and beauty got you sex, but you weren't allowed to enjoy it. One of the problems with her life has been investing a relationship with more emotion, more importance, to justify the pleasure of sex. "You know the syndrome, 'If someone makes me feel this good, it must be love.' Only in my 40s did I begin to see that sex was scariest when I was vulnerable, when I admitted loving someone and waited to see if he would stay and love me back.' Her 40s were an exciting but devastating decade which closed in that very ugly period where she lost her job, almost died and got dumped.
The celebrated "because I'm worth it" hair is scraped back, the face devoid of make-up, except lipstick, the skin clear; the eyes still have the ice-queen heat of perfect blue. She carries herself with a strange awareness that she's worth more because of what she's gone through. She has that peculiar edge of the once devastatingly beautiful. She answers the questions with a strange impassivity, not with the intense flurry and self-deprecating wit of the book. I'm not sure if she has contempt for the questions, for me, or herself.
It was that famous indifference, peering from the cover of Glamour magazine, that attracted the attention of Bogdanovich and won her the part that was to change her life. She says she always wore her looks like a mantle, with a certain degree of discomfort. Her looks confused her. She could get any man she wanted, but how could she know who really cared about her? And she always knew that "the power I had gleaned from beauty dwarfed any other kind of achievement, no matter how hard I worked". She doesn't say this in a pitiful, complaining that "She's so beautiful" sort of way, just with a strange kind of distance from herself.
At eight, she ran into a barbed-wire fence and tore a triangle on her upper lip. "I experienced the transience of beauty. Suddenly I was no longer beautiful.' Fortunately for her, it was transient because the doctor at the local hospital refused to touch her, sent her, oozing with blood and an ice pack, off to Memphis and a plastic surgeon. She says it took three years for the scar to heal, also that she almost died of pneumonia twice as a child. "So that left me with a tremendous drive towards not taking things for granted.' She catches me staring at her lip."! probably lined my lips, so you don't notice, but if I didn't, you'd see that I already had plastic surgery when I was eight. ' So you won't do it again. "Well, I never say never," she shrugs.
The more relaxed she is, the more southern she's sounding. Her southern childhood is viscerally observed in her book. Her mother's nails in tangerine frost, the taste of Dr Pepper, and pickled pig's feet, not necessarily together; her grandfather, lank and looming, his smell of tobacco and chicory coffee as she climbed into his lap, recognising for the first time that she could exchange feminine charms for getting what she wanted, "pretty please with sugar on top"; the rollers that dug into her scalp, imparting the knowledge that you have to suffer to be beautiful, then you get to have sex, but you're not allowed to enjoy it. Except she did, very much.
An enlightened doctor gave her the Pill when she was 16 without it being discussed with her mother until years later. Everything about sex was tacit, unspoken. When she won Miss Teenage Memphis in 1966, she seemed to have both contempt for the pageant and a desire to win. The prize was a gateway to a modelling contract and being told she had to lose 30lb. Being less of herself went deeply against the grain. She ignored it, but still made the cover of Glamour five times in a year. The final one mesmerised Bogdanovich and he thought she'd be perfect for the part in The Last Picture Show of a narcissistic ice princess who stings men and moves on, with the predatory flair usually assigned to men.
She found she loved acting, loved her co-star Jeff Bridges, with whom she fairly rapidly began to "keep company after hours". She's always had a fatal attraction for co-stars. "In fact, the one time I think I really overdid it was with Jeff Bridges. Jeff was adorable, but nobody could compare to Peter.” Bogdanovich was several years older than her and married. They began an intense and unstoppable affair. In the film, her character went around damaging other people but could only focus on how bad it made her feel, couldn't resist causing pain, and that was exactly what she was doing.
By the time the film premiered, they were all over each other, the quintessential 1970s Hollywood couple, wild, free, damaged. There is an overall sense that, despite the two husbands and crazily intense affairs that followed, Bogdanovich was the love of her life. They're still friends and, in fact, he and his new wife are house guests right now. She concedes that things might have been different if they'd had a child. She wanted one, desperately, with him, but he didn't. They shared perfect kisses, loyalty and their own language--they would act out scenes from their favourite movies, borrowing bits of Carole Lombard dialogue. She longed to be that kind of funny, quirky smart blonde on film.
Bogdanovich turned down Chinatown because the producer insisted on Faye Dunaway, not Shepherd, and The Getaway, because Bob Evans had insisted that his wife, Ali MacGraw, play next to Steve McQueen. Instead, Bogdanovich directed her in Daisy Miller, a disastrous adaptation of a Henry James story, and then, even more tragically, in At Long Last Love. They both were doing the most damage possible to their own careers. Their friend Cary Grant warned them: "Stop telling people you're so in love and so happy, because people are not in love and not happy.” Also, she wasn't forgiven for breaking up a marriage.
Bogdanovich thought of other ways to be mentor--like and inspirational, encouraged her constantly, particularly with her singing. They remained hugely loyal to each other, despite the fact she was not monogamous. For a start, at the beginning of their relationship, there was Elvis, who clocked her in The Last Picture Show. It started with a tour of Graceland, then ended up in his red, black and leopard-skin bedroom. In her book, she describes how his deliberate slow kisses ended at her bellybutton, how she had to ask, "Is something wrong?" and Elvis replied: "Well, you see, me and the guys talk and, well, white boys don't eat pussy." She carefully explained to him what he was missing, but she herself had the feeling of being outside herself, watching.
She had fun with Presley, but he wasn't Peter. And when she dashed off again to spend the weekend with Presley, he had seemed more interested in pills, which were never her priority, than sex. He left her a small black box containing a bristling diamond-and-emerald ring she describes as "too hideous for Liberace.' She declined the gift and left, returning to a furious Bogdanovich, who'd caught her out in her lies. Presley followed her back to LA, upset that she'd left, giving her a him-or-me ultimatum, and she didn't see him again. Ever. I asked her, what was she thinking, that she wanted to be with Elvis because he was Elvis? "No. I was interested in him because of who he was as a human being, and he was one of the most sexy human beings I ever met. He was extremely sensual and we had a great chemistry, but he was very deep into the drug addiction that ended up killing him. He first got addicted when he was in the army. The standard issue was speed for night manoeuvres at that time. He liked it so much because it kept his weight down, and if you take a lot of speed you need downers. He was very sad."
Elvis wasn't the only thing standing in the way of Bogdanovich and monogamy. There was an exchange with a producer friend of them both and her general sexual appetite, which she talks of later as being like a constant hunger that could never be nourished. She never found the nirvana she was looking for: "Buddhists talk about it as the realm of the hungry ghosts. That's the way I was, going from one to another."
She sits upright and still. She is an odd combination of feisty and shy, indifferent and passionate, ditsy but lyrical, revelatory but distant. The shiny grand piano dominates the room. The rest of the place has a weird mid-1980s feel to it. Low black lacquered coffee table, Chinese-box influence, a kangaroo tea towel and tapestried cushions. There's a framed head shot of her 20-year-old daughter, Clementine, and no evidence I can see of the twins, Ariel and Zack. The dining room has leopard-fabric chairs, a Wurlitzer jukebox and a cardboard cutout of Shepherd herself. Looks like a Moonlighting pose.
There are lots of books. Sheet music and CDs are strewn about. She's always loved music and she's always loved to sing. She's done several albums of classic ballads, Coward, Porter, that sort of thing. She's got a couple of cabaret shows coming up, and came to writing music fairly late, but has just written a song for Clementine, who is due to marry soon.
And though we have been dissecting the nature of who you love and why, how she "stopped wanting to use others for sex and no longer wanted to be used' how now "I'm enjoying not being involved with anyone. I date, but I only have sex with myself. I enjoy my own sexuality", it still comes as a surprise that she begins singing a Cole Porter song: "The gods who nurse this universe think little of mortals' cares. They sit in crowds on exclusive clouds and laugh at our love affairs. I might have had a real romance if they'd given me a chance. I loved him, but he didn't love me. I wanted him, but he didn't want me. Then the gods had a spree and indulged in another whim. Now he loves me, but I don't love him.'
She sighs. "I don't have the answers. All I know is how little I know. And I'm very cautious now about getting involved with anyone, finally. This is depressing, huh? Not really." She answers herself before I have a chance. "Getting older is not a wonderful thing and menopause is definitely not necessarily respected in our culture." She's been an endless campaigner for the rights to hot flushes and she's almost persuading me to take a course in masturbation. Videotapes that instruct the delights of sex for one are something she highly recommends. "As we get older, we do not get less sexual. My grandmother said when I married my second husband [Bruce Oppenheim], 'I'm so pleased you're marrying a younger man. They get to a certain age when they don’t want to have sex any more and women never want to stop wanting to do it.' Sensuality is not about getting it up and keeping it up, although I think a non-limp penis is a very nice thing. There are other issues to tackle, like the Christian attitude to the body. I think it's extraordinary being a 50-year-old mother of two 12-year-olds, because we're all in hormone chaos.'
Having just read her book, it seems she's been in hormone chaos her whole life. She says saying she was out of control was a cop-out, making an excuse for taking pleasure in sex. If sex brought her pleasure, though, there's no question it brought her pain in equal amounts. After eight years of varying intensity, she and Bogdanovich broke up. She'd had another couple of career highs with Taxi Driver and The Heartbreak Kid, another period of random sexual encounters, and her first pregnancy, which, without telling anyone, she had terminated.
On an emotional low, she returned to Memphis,where, at a rather surprising speed, she met in a bar and fell for David Ford, a Mercedes-Benz car-parts dealer. He reminded her of an Englishman who had once broken her heart. Do you think perhaps you were falling in love with a memory or a fantasy? "So often, I think we're dealing with our fantasy of who we'd like that person to be, then it's so impossible for them to fulfil ."So David wasn't the person you thought he was going to be? "No. But we have a great daughter.' She describes the time her daughter Clementine was conceived as primal and mystical. She and Ford got married, even though she'd never believed in the institution. Her eyes light up in cynical recognition of the phrase "on the rebound". The relationship with Ford ended. She says it was like a body blow hearing him confess he'd been with someone else. Clementine was still a baby. It was grim at first. He told the tabloids how, after the divorce, he came to work for her as her driver. Before that, he seems to have taken over as the kind of manager who is really an assistant.
She decides she's hungry and prepares a salad of salmon and capers and juicy greens. She's much more relaxed when she's eating. Often you sense with her a kind of dislocation. Her body's there, but her mind isn't. She likes to cook and she likes to eat. That seems to bring her together. She talks about Orson Welles and his adventurous eating. Welles was a friend of Bogdanovich's and a mentor of hers, urging her into theatre and singing to reinvent herself after the critics had savaged her acting in At Long Last Love. "I grew up eating raw oysters, cow's brains and pickled pig's feet. Orson, though, would order whitebait for me and steak tartare when I didn't have a clue it would be raw. He was a great gourmand. He'd get uptight if you didn't eat all of what you ordered and lay on you a guilt trip, 'Now I'm having to eat it because you didn't.' He was such a mentor to me, though, and I was a willing pupil." Seemed like she was always looking for mentors outside her family. When her mother said, "You've always got your head in a book," she meant it as a criticism. She was always looking for someone who helped her believe "that I could do something other than just look pretty". The longer I'm looking at her, the more beautiful she appears. It's a sullen kind of beauty that's at odds with itself. She might have gone through her life discouraged by the power of beauty, how it might obscure her brain, but that doesn't mean she wants to let it go. The lipstick has been licked off. Pale, perfect lips, no scar. She observes me eyeing a piece of chocolate. "Do you like chocolate?" she says, almost flirtatiously. We eat chocolate and papaya and chlorophyll pills, which are meant to be good for digestion. They taste powdery and revolting, which for some reason reminds me of what it must have been like to feel Bruce Willis's camel tongue.
In the mid-1980s, at a time when her agent didn't exactly have her on speed-dial, the Moonlighting series came as a very exciting bolt out of the blue that had followed a couple of not-so-hot TV movies, an affair with a stuntman who put her in the sandwich with another stuntman, and a simultaneous dabbling with her gynaecologist after she told him she'd been close to having an orgasm when he put in her IUD.
The Moonlighting script played with her image as spoilt bitch with a smacking wit. Every week, there were endless barbs with crinkly-eyed bad boy Bruce Willis. I found it hard to believe that such sexual fencing on screen was not tempered with off-screen action. "We were never lovers and that helped prolong the chemistry. It was a choice I wanted and he helped me to make, but I was too weak because I was very attracted to him'
On screen, they were two private detectives in a constant "do they love each other, do they hate each other" scenario. She says that after one particularly heated rehearsal, she just said: "Are we going to do something about this or what?" At first he just squinted, looked startled, but not unpleasantly so, and suggested coming over to her place. She describes how he arrived at her apartment with a bottle of Gentleman Jim "and it wasn't long before we were passionately sucking face. Obviously I had conflict. It was all that 'We should do it, we shouldn't do it." She says they were on the lounger in a "lusty missionary embrace" when suddenly he stopped, saying : "Maybe you're right.” "He rearranged himself and left.' Do you think he did that because you'd made the first move, then he thought you were going to rebuff him? Was he punishing you? "I don't know. It was probably the right decision' In her book, she concedes, "Maybe Bruce likes the chase better than the catch. We never did finish what we'd started in private, but any time we had a kissing scene, he stuck a big camel tongue halfway down my throat."
Then things got really nasty. He was always telling her her hair was dippy, and she would retort by saying that at least she had some. Even then, she describes how Bruce's scalp had to be filled in with greasy, dark cosmetic pencils for the camera. She says perhaps Demi Moore taught him how to kiss better. "I couldn't teach him' she says. "It's hard to find that perfect kiss, though' Remember that song, It's in His Kiss? She doesn't sing it because I query whether more potent kisses only come from those men who can be so close for the time of the kiss and turn completely unavailable. "I avoid those men now, those bad boys."
During the Moonlighting series, she had back trouble, began visiting her chiropractor, Bruce Oppenheim, and gradually it wasn’t just her back he was treating. She became pregnant with twins, which was just about the final straw for the show. The writers invented a weird, implausible story line and it just stopped working. Not long after, when the twins were 15 months, the relationship with Bruce the husband stopped working. At first, the split was particularly rancorous. The first husband described in a tabloid tell-all not just how badly he felt about being Cybill Shepherd's shepherd, but how husband No 2 also seemed to have been relegated to doing a lot of cooking, cleaning out the swimming pool and shopping. It seemed to be a few years before all this bad taste could be dissolved into friendliness and comedy.
After the demise of Moonlighting, she was back in TV movie land and on the set of The Long Hot Summer, where she met Don Johnson and immediately told the producer to write some scenes for them together. She describes the intense attraction of their meeting. "We lasted a nanosecond on the porch and rapidly progressed to my bed. It was like wolfing down a candy bar when you're starving--fast, furious and intense and it was all over in five minutes ."Were you at this time really hungry for him? "No, I was just pretty hungry in general." Would any candy have done then? "Oh, no. Don is a very special kind of candy." But you only got that one taste? "Yes' she says, "that turned out to be enough."
She flashes very quickly from a head-tossing, joyous reminiscence to nobody-gets-to-be-happy-very-often blank meditation. Moonlighting and marriage over, she began to take stock of where it all went wrong. In her therapist's office, she says she found some wonderful books on sexual addiction. I ask her, do you think it's the sex or the relationship that's addictive? She looks at me, hurt :"Would you describe what happens in my book as sexually addictive?" She's offended that I've taken the sex out of context, like it's to do with the body, not the mind. Then, she concedes :"I didn't know how to be alone, so I always had somebody waiting in the wings. It doesn’t mean I was happy. I know now I want someone I can talk to. You have to be able to tell the other person what you want and don't want, and I need to avoid being involved with someone I work with. If I'm the boss in any sense of the word, it's extremely difficult to know if they care about me or just want the opportunity."
The Cybill series of the 1990s was where the pieces of her life were meant to be tied together with appropriate irony. All that life-makes-art stuff. The fictional Cybill was an actress with two ex-husbands who'd often be sitting around in the living room when her date arrived. She'd be living the menopause and acting the mood swing, or was it the other way round? At this time her musical director, Robert Martin, became another relationship that was creatively and sexually nourishing.
For a time, anyway. She wrote songs for him about how much she was in love with him, but knew there was a small but important difference between them. "Like the difference between being a Democrat and a Republican." In her book, she won't give him his real name. She calls him Howard Roark, based on the character created by the novelist Ayn Rand, who promoted the theory of something called objectivism. Objectivists believe there's only one correct point of view and anyone who doesn't subscribe to it is wrong. "One of the joys of life is giving, but in this philosophy, there is no giving. You only give to other people because of what you can get in return. That's not giving--it's double-entry book-keeping."
Her boyfriend was becoming more and more obsessed with this philosophy. They saw counsellors, but only became more estranged. Meanwhile, the Cybil show, which had started off in the great tradition of The Lucy Show and Roseanne, of the actress who's blunt, funny and unafraid to make a fool of herself, descended into something horrific. More knives thrown in backs than in a metal circus, and everyone raging that Shepherd was out of control, mad, bad and dangerous to know.
The great thing about the Cybill show chapters is that the person she's hardest on is herself, so she doesn't come over as the controlling bitch of her reputation. Well, I suppose she wouldn't, would she? It's her story and she's telling it.
The dog she describes in her book as a furry slug, Petunia, is a tiny pug. She credits her with saving her life. After her show was dumped and she was dumped by her boyfriend and her body rebelled with its double-twisted intestine, she came back from hospital and Clementine had bought the puppy. The dog, with its tiny pink tongue with a black spot on it, is all for her. She says she's happier now alone, not in a painful relationship. When I ask if she's having sex with anyone she's dating, she says: "Not yet. My experience is, although I've tried to break the stereotype that it's only men who can have sex and not be emotionally attached, women cannot. It's a little like russian roulette. You go in openly and say, this is only for the sexual. You never know if you'll hurt them or you'll become attached and they'll hurt you."
What she is clear about is how politicised she feels about sex, how much she's enjoyed political fighting. "It's interesting to know what values were given to me by the culture I was living in. But I'd like to know what we can keep of that wild time in the 1970s. Nobody has figured this out, how to get the wildness back. I did experience such pleasure that I don't regret."
While her eyes are searching for a conclusion, she has a sudden flash. She's meant to be with her daughter. She says she can't be late. It would be unforgivable. She must go. She orders me a taxi and leaves me alone in her house. It's a long wait and I think the taxi is never going to come. It occurs to me what a typical gesture this was. On the one hand, extremely detached to flounce off, on the other so extremely trusting that I'm not going to rifle through her rubbish bins for love letters or secrets, but she knows I've read the book. She's got no skeletons in her closet because she's taken them all out herself.
Cybill Disobedience is published by Ebury Press on May 4, at £14.99.