David Remnick: After six acclaimed seasons, the Good Fight is finally coming to an end. The finale aired this month, and the shows end as a bittersweet one since in the minds of many critics and fans it captured the tensions of our current moment, like no other program on the air, it starred Christine Baranski as Diane Lockhart, a Chicago attorney who's a die-hard liberal coping with life in Trump's America.
Emily Nussbaum: I'm delighted to welcome Christine Baranski who's not only a quadruple and probably more threat performer and a radical fashion inspiration, but my personal guide through today's political hellscape.
David: Emily Nussbaum is a staff writer and she writes often about television for the magazine. She talked with Christine Baranski at the New Yorker Festival back in 2018, early in the run of the Good Fight. They spoke about the show's politics, the Me Too Movement and More. Baranski had a long career in theater before her breakout moment on television in the '90s as the hard-drinking buddy to Cybill Shepherd's character on Cybill. Here's Emily.
Emily: Christine is a 15-time Emmy award nominee. She's won two Tony's for the Real Thing and Rumors, and she has a house in Connecticut where she gets to go skinny dipping at night. Basically she's living the life. Welcome, Christine Baranski.
Christine Baranski: Thank you.
Emily: We were talking backstage and we immediately went into a political rabbit hole. Rather than start with anything political, I'm going to start with a clip from Mamma Mia.
Christine: Maybe we should all just sit around singing Abba songs. This is the first Mamma Mia of course. The second one just appeared this summer, which I thought was a public service. You go from being, "God, this is really silly. Oh God." Then I realized the world really needs a couple of hours to still believe life is joyous and people get along and there's sensuality and a belief in love. There's a just a goofy innocence about the movie, as I said, it performs a function now.
Emily: I'm going to show another clip and we're going to jump right to The Good Fight. This trip is called Trumped Arrangement Syndrome.
Julius Cain: This is deranged. This is the Trump derangement syndrome. You're just as bad as you're accusing him of being.
Diane Lockheart: No, I'm just done with being the adult in the room. I am done with being the compliant and the sensible one standing stoically by while the other side picks my pockets, while the other side gerrymanders Democrats out of existence. A three million person majority and we lost the presidency. A congress that keeps the Supreme Court Justice from being seated because he was chosen by a Democratic president.
Julius: That's not what happened.
Diane: That is exactly what happened, Julius.
Julius: Then take to the streets, man the barricades, because if that's what you really think, you've given up on the law, you've gone well beyond any-
Diane: Actually, you don't know. I have a Smith & Wesson 64 in my desk, and I'm this close to taking to the streets.
Christine: There's an uncanny synchronicity to this character. As I watch this my eyes are welling up in tears as I watch this. It's so of the moment. It's just brilliantly written it really puts intelligent, liberal-minded people who believe in the liberal democratic tradition in society and in their country, puts them in a workplace and lets them bump into each other and mix ideas and make intellectual arguments that are complex and not strident. That this woman, this Diane character, for having fought the good fight all her life being a woman who probably followed Hillary through Wellesley and championed her and had to knock on the glass ceiling many times and finds herself at this present moment living in a country where we're backsliding in terms of women's rights.
It's a marvelous role to play and it's a marvelous show to be on because the writers just take us into the belly of the beast and let us live in that world.
Emily: The Good Fight was supposed to be a show about Hillary being president. Instead, it was a show about Trump being president, which obviously transformed the show.
Christine: We shot that pilot the days before and the days after the election. Then of course we had to rewrite the pilot because the presumption was Diane was going to retire because there are no more glass ceilings to break and she gets the house in the south of France. Then she loses her money. There was a speech at the very beginning where she's talking about there are no more glass ceilings to break. It was written as a line thinking that Hillary Clinton was going to be the president.
That line was taken out and we had to rewrite the episode. Now it seems like Diane got that house in the south of France because she didn't want to live in the United States.
Emily: Every element of it just changes context. This seems like a good lead into clip from Cybil. Let's go to a clip from Cybil.
Maryann Thoorpe: Champagne for everyone at that table.
Cybill Shepherd: Champagne at lunch? We haven't had that since yesterday.
Maryann: Cybill, I have fabulous news. My prodigal son is returning, Justin is coming home for Thanksgiving.
Cybill: That's wonderful. I knew he'd come back.
Maryann: It's been three years Cybil, without a word. You remember the night he left? I had just come back from that save our furs benefit. He told me he hated my entire pampered, materialistic existence. That he asked for $2,000 and left for Peru.
Cybill: Maybe being away three years changed his mind. Maybe the money ran out.
Maryann: Cybill, I don't want to celebrate another 40th birthday without him. I want to prove to him that I'm not something he has to run away from. I'm going to start by showing him the best old-fashioned Thanksgiving we've ever had. Except for that one in Aruba with Ivana Trump and Richard Simmons.
Cybill: Hey, I've got an idea. Why don't you bring Justin to my house? Everyone's in town, I'm going to make a good old-fashioned Memphis Thanksgiving. I'm going to use all four Southern food groups. Sugar, salt, grease, and alcohol.
Maryann: It sounds tempting, but I can't
Cybill: Come on. The whole family's going to be there and you're part of my family. Did I mention there'll be alcohol? I'd love to darling but I want Justin all to myself this weekend. I'm even going to cook all his favorite health foods. One question. Is it still correct to call it brown rice or is it rice of color?
Emily: I watched all these old Cybills and I have to say, it is a very surreal show to watch because it is a real time capsule of the period.
Christine: Look at the hair. Oh my God.
Emily: What was that like the first year that you were making Cybill? Because there really was this complete and also actually, I was wondering because you came largely as a stage actress and television was in a very different stage.
Christine: Oh God, yes. There was still that conflict of if you did television, you were giving up the theater. Now everybody's doing everything. Actually, everybody wants a job on television because there's so much great writing on television. At that time, I was seriously conflicted. I was in my early '40s by then and, except for some films, I was really a theater actress and defined myself that way. Plus they weren't shooting shows in New York. For the most part, especially sitcoms were shot in LA. I had two children and I didn't want to raise them in LA. I just kept turning down pilots and then they approached me about this and the character was meant to be Ab Fab Joanna Lumley type.
I was doing the math on how much it would cost to educate my two daughters. It seemed like the theater was not going to provide that income. I began to seriously consider it but it was a really tortured decision. My manager who's here today, she'll tell you, she really had to talk me into it. The night before I left, I almost called her in the middle of the night to say, I just don't think I can do it. It's too big a step and I decided not to move the children to LA but that we would try my commuting back and forth. It was for some reason, a huge psychological jump for me to go to Hollywood and to do a sitcom that said if ever there was a sitcom. That said, if ever there was a sitcom that was right for me to do at that moment in time, it was that role, and in that show.
Chuck Lorre wrote the pilot. I did accept it on the basis of the pilot, which just I thought this character there, she's just got those great whip-smart one-liners. The one line that sold me on the whole project was when Cybill just out of the blue says, "You know what's amazing Maryanne?" My response is, "They make vodka from wheat."
Christine: It's just there's something there about that writing that I think I can work with this. I told Chuck that and he later confessed it's not a Chuck Lorre line, it's his writing partner, Lee Aaronson, who's a recovered alcoholic. Anyway, that character, within 13 episodes, I won an Emmy for that. To that I give it over to Chuck Lorre and the writing of that character. No one had seen that woman on American television. They'd seen Ab Fab, but she was the first out of the gate. Sex in the City came later. The woman with the martini, who was a badass in her outfits, in her attitude, that was the first of its kind. Boy, it changed my career.
Those were really hard years. I hated living alone in a hotel. I missed my kids so desperately, but it's why I'm here. It's why I had a relationship all those years with CBS. That was a turning point in my career. Who goes to Hollywood at 42 and is an overnight star in that way that you become a star because of television? I mean, I was a well-known theater actress, but not a celebrity, not a star.
Emily: You talked about your long relationship with CBS. I'm wondering how people are responding to what's going on with Les Moonves.
Christine: It is shocking, but that's where the culture is. It's a clarifying moment in our culture. I think it's going to be messy before it gets better. I will miss Les.
Emily: I was wondering with you and your daughters, who are a lawyer and a-- When you've had conversations about what's going on, do you find there to be a generational difference between you and your perspectives on some of these issues or is that so true?
Christine: Only slightly. Well, yes. I did get into one conversation with my daughter about men's behavior and how I was raised. I was raised in a Catholic background, an all girls Catholic high school. It was just instilled in us as young women that men were that way, that they couldn't control themselves after a certain point. I mean, I literally was told if you let a man touch you anywhere below the neck, he might turn into an uncontrollable wild animal and it's your responsibility if you get pregnant. You have to control he narrative. I told this to my daughter and she said, "No, no is no at any point." At any point in the evening, no matter what's going on.
I said, "That's interesting. That's just not the way I was raised." I said, "I would never go to a man's room late at night. I just assume that he might very well behave badly." There's that difference, but it's how we were raised. I'm proud of my daughters. I think they're very savvy about their feminism and they're not strident, but they're clearheaded about it and pragmatic. One of my daughters did get a law degree and she was really agonizing whether or not to go to law school. It's such a huge commitment. I said, "Look, you can rail against the world, but if you want to change things, you've got to know how the system works."
Becoming a lawyer as Diane did, you figure out how the system works, however flawed it is, and then you figure out how to change it. Blogging and railing against the machine with a lot of hyperbole, a lot of screaming, isn't going to get us there. I think at this moment in time for women, it's the most important time to be clearheaded rational as well as passionate, and angry. Channel the anger in an intelligent, clear, forward-moving way.
Emily: It's so hard to talk about this stuff because I always I find myself feeling all those emotional feelings and wanting to escape from it all. You went to Oxford to study, right?
Christine: I did. My other daughter, Lily, got a graduate degree at Wilson College at Oxford in anthropology. When I took her there to help her move in, I was just utterly captivated by Oxford. One of my deep regrets in my life is that I did not have a real college education, an academic experience in that way. I went straight to Julliard, which although it was a prestigious acting school, was trade school. I learned the craft of acting and I'm happy I did and that was my great passion. I've always longed to go back to school and use more of my brain and my intellect. There's a summer course called The Oxford Experience. Next year I'm signed up for the Duke of Wellington one week, and then the meaning of life the following week. I'll do two weeks sniff the--
Emily: The meaning of life just as a subject matter?
Christine: Yes. Why not?
Emily: Not like the Monty Python film?
Christine: No. Just the meaning of life in one week at Oxford.
Christine: You should have me back next year. I'll have all the answers.
Emily: Know a whole situation.
Christine: This is it. [laughs]
Emily: Thank you so much to everybody for coming. Thank you to Christine Baranski.
David: Emily Nussbaum speaking with Christine Baranski at the New Yorker Festival in 2018. The Good Fight had its finale this month, and you can stream all six seasons on Paramount Plus.
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