In playing the title role in “Murphy Brown,” the 1990s comedy series about the misadventures of a tough television newswoman, Candice Bergen garnered five Emmy Awards and two Golden Globes, and found herself starring in an influential show that provided a model for female corporate climbers and successfully, if unintentionally, injected itself into American politics. For six months, “Murphy Brown” grabbed headlines after then-Vice President Dan Quayle took Bergen’s character to task for turning a critical family value on its head by embracing single motherhood.
Long before reality television became a dominant television genre, “Murphy Brown” was dabbling in the field—and in a far more dignified fashion than many of today’s reality shows. For the show’s final episodes, which dealt with Murphy’s battle with breast cancer, producers hired actors who were breast cancer survivors, giving authenticity to scenes of Murphy in encounter groups and subjects such as the psychological effects of the disease. Producers made a special wig for Bergen so that she was seen with the kind of sparse hair growth common after chemotherapy.
The program captured the public’s hearts, and Bergen, too, grew to admire the character she played. “Murphy herself was such a gold standard for smart, strong, independent, individual women,” Bergen writes in A Fine Romance (Simon & Schuster), her recent memoir. “I always wished I’d grown up with her when I was a young girl. I think if I had a character like Murphy to identify with when I was younger, I would have gotten to where I wanted to be in a quarter of the time. I am always struck by the number of women who come up to me and say they watched ‘Murphy’ with their mothers growing up.”
When the show ended, it was as if a spigot had been shut off, Bergen says, recounting a time shortly after the show’s run when she was waiting for her car after a dinner event that included Warren Beatty and Annette Bening. The paparazzi were all over the A-list couple, but when they drove off, the cameras virtually ignored Bergen, still waiting for the valet to pull her car around.
Bergen had a rich résumé before “Murphy Brown.” She had appeared in film classics such as “The Sand Pebbles” and “Carnal Knowledge,” and was the first female host of “Saturday Night Live,” a job that showed her in a more comedic light than she had been known for. She was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress for her role as Burt Reynolds’ tone-deaf wife in the film “Starting Over.” And she would find a television audience again, in “Boston Legal.”
Yet, three years after “Murphy Brown,” having landed the part of a conniving beauty pageant director in the film “Miss Congeniality” with Sandra Bullock, Bergen was still feeling uneasy. “I was playing the part of a former beauty queen show runner past her prime, sitting in the makeup trailer past my prime surrounded by these gorgeous dewy young things playing pageant contestants,” she writes. “They’d be chattering away, giggling, thrilled to have a job, while I’d be in the far corner hunched over a magnifying mirror, putting on eyeliner and feeling like an old shrew.”
Those are just a couple of the peaks and valleys, then peaks again, in Bergen’s life—a cyclical series of happy milestones followed by letdowns, loss and hurdles, and sometimes illness and death, only to be followed by self-reclamation and progress—that the actress, now 69, has handled with optimism, reflection and humor. She was born in Beverly Hills, California, to renowned ventriloquist Edgar Bergen and former actress Frances Bergen, making her radio debut on her father’s show at age 6. Her privileged childhood included Christmastime visits from actor David Niven dressed as Santa, and presents from “Uncle Walt” Disney, a part of her life Bergen explores in her first memoir, Knock Wood (Linden). But despite her princess-like beauty and spending her entire life in the shadow of a glamorous movie world privy to few, Bergen comes off not as remote and inaccessible, but as a warm, friendly confidante to whom anyone can relate.
That’s because the obstacles Bergen writes so eloquently and candidly about are universal: the loss of a job, the physical slowdown and changing appearance that come with age, and the death of loved ones. Those ups and downs on which Bergen reflects are what all of us know in one word: life. And the choices we make in responding to them plays a major role in our mental and physical well-being, as Bergen shows in A Fine Romance.
A Daughter’s Grief
Bergen’s daughter Chloe with Louis Malle, the director of “Atlantic City” and “My Dinner With Andre,” is a constant in her life and helped lift her through difficult times, including the death of Malle from cancer at age 64. In a sometimes subtle way, Bergen is forward-looking, even if she seems unintentionally so at times, in her coping. When she and Chloe, at age 12 and at the end of “Murphy Brown,” move into a new home, it is not to discard the memory of Malle dying in their old house but because Chloe was growing up and bigger digs were needed to accommodate her visiting friends.
It is perhaps oddly fitting that Malle died on Thanksgiving Day. There is, if not outright gratitude, something resembling it in Bergen’s outlook even as she is reflecting on the somber and tragic. For instance, though Malle’s relationship with his daughter was “usually fraught with absences,” Bergen recounts, their relationship morphed during his illness. “She became his caretaker, and in doing so, they found a connection with each other that was very powerful and moving,” Bergen says.
After Malle died, it was Chloe who expressed the tragedy of being stuck in a cloud of grief, making it sound almost unnatural to experience despair without some joy, or at least an absence of despair, to follow it. By responding to an endless stream of condolence cards, Chloe became locked into that grief seemingly without the opportunity for recovery. “I don’t understand,” Bergen quotes a frustrated Chloe as saying. “Something horrible happens to you, then you have to do something horrible again.”
Bergen recounts that Chloe’s upbeat spirit had been apparent when her father was ill; Chloe had written a note—“a declaration, really,” Bergen says—and signed it: “I do and always will love life. Chloe Malle.”
Finding Love Again
Time and again, after treading water a bit, Bergen returns to a firmer footing and brighter place, testimony that Chloe’s life-affirming outlook is at least partly hereditary. In evidence are Bergen’s own feelings of appreciation and gratitude to her mother after her death in 2006, after four years in which her mother was bedridden, the last few with delirium. Even during that difficult period, Bergen manages to find time to appreciate tender, meaningful moments, though fleeting, with her mother. And despite what Bergen says was a “stormy” and “competitive” relationship, she writes, “It surprises me how often I think of my mother and miss her; how I notice little things she taught me. The loss has grown with time.”
Bergen shows fortitude about her own health challenges, too. In her dressing room on the “Boston Legal” set, she suffered a TIA, or transient ischemic attack (sometimes known as a mini-stroke) and then a second. To avoid interrupting Chloe’s education in Paris, Bergen downplays the TIAs, though they are debilitating for a while.
She is sanguine about other elements of her health: her diet, self-image and aging. “We are…the hip generation,” she writes, “but we have now become the ‘hip replacement generation,’ and family friends’ conversations about their hip surgeries, which once made us snicker, have now become our own.”
In similar brave fashion, she accepts a certain degree of pain for the sake of being able to feel a full range of human emotions. Bergen had been a regular user of Prozac in a low dosage but gave up the drug to regain the ability to cry, despite sometimes crying uncontrollably. She attributes this to a condition known as emotional lability, which she says is usually caused by a stroke. “In my case, this manifests as weeping at commercials that feature dogs,” she says.
“And, of course, I am back to being cranky. The surfaces that Prozac smoothed are, once again, scratchy and abrasive. I am short-tempered and Chloe calls me on it. I am impatient and judgmental. I am not nearly as nice to be around, that is true. I miss the other Kinder, Gentler Self, but I have recovered my ability to cry, and then some. You can’t have everything.”
One thing Bergen finds she can have again is love. After Malle’s death, a second shot at love is the last thing on Bergen’s mind, yet she eventually finds it, with real estate developer Marshall Rose, to whom she is introduced at a dinner party.
Bergen is self-accepting when it comes to her natural self. She has sworn off plastic surgery, and in characteristic humor, sees a “tiny upside” to the pounds she has put on since marrying Rose: “My face definitely looks younger,” she says. “Fat holds your face up; my skin is stretched to the max. Wrinkles don’t stand a chance.”
She does indulge in spin classes, however, at Chloe’s urging, and is self-deprecating in calling herself on the excuses she sometimes uses to get out of exercising: “‘I don’t have enough time to go spinning, and then get my hair blown out for the radio interview,’ because we need our hair perfect
Though Bergen confesses that she sometimes misses the compliments she used to get for her beauty, she accepts who she is and wherever it is she is going. She credits her parents with “saving” her from vanity, and instilling the lesson that focusing on looks creates an “unfulfilled, incomplete person.”
Bergen is anything but unfulfilled and incomplete. Is A Fine Romance a reference to Bergen’s relationship with Malle? With their daughter Chloe? With her second husband, Marshall Rose? The way she’s lived it, chances are the title refers to her romance with life. She has triumphed over self-doubt by choosing gratitude and a positive outlook when she has reached milestones, good or bad. The lesson of Bergen’s rich life is that with that upbeat outlook—coupled with perseverance and a healthy sense of learning to expect the unexpected—love, health and a quality life can be reclaimed in some measure over and over again.