Candice Bergen Plays at Hollywood – 1989 Vanity Fair

Original Publication Vanity Fair, February 1989

As twilight hits the Valley, working Beverly Hills mother Candice Bergen climbs into her sturdy white rented Jeep Wagoneer for the half-hour commute home.  With the savvy assurance of a former rich kid who pelted eggs at the convertibles of other cruising movie brats twenty-five years ago on these same flats and hills, she deftly executes a series of complicated shortcuts through Coldwater Canyon.  Winding and twisting past some of the world’s most expensive real estate, she zips by Mary and Swifty Lazar’s house, where Hollywood’s A list was practically invented, and lands on the steep driveway of her rented bungalow.  Inside the cozy house with deck and view is only slightly overstuffed, in the Pierre Deux country style familiar from Barbara Walters specials.  The requisite sunken tub in the bathroom is teeny-tiny by the standards of Candy Spelling, the wife of TV mega-producer Aaron Spelling and the reigning chatelaine of Beverly Hills.  Candy B.’s tub contains not one gold fixture, only a toy boat and Kewpie doll, evidence of her three-year old daughter, Chloe.

This is a far cry from life on the grand estate two minutes away where Princess Candy grew up with a governess and a donkey, where the golden daughter of Frances and Edgar Bergen, the world’s most famous ventriloquist, wandered alone among the rose orchards and honeysuckle and ran her dogs up to Katharine Hepburn’s aviary on the old John Barrymore estate.

But today Katharine Hepburn makes her home in New York, Candy Bergen’s “brother,” Charlie McCarthy, has been retired to the Smithsonian, and these hills are alive with the sound of million-dollar mansions being bulldozed so novae châteaux of, say, 55,000 square feet can be built by people like the other Candy.  Living here for the first time in over a decade, Candy Bergen, now forty-two and married for eight years to suave and celebrated French director Louis Malle, is aghast.  “To me there is a grotesqueness and obscenity about the way people flaunt money here,” she shudders.  “They have reinvented ways to spend it.”

Candice Bergen can’t help it if she feels out of place, a cross-pollination of old Hollywood royalty and sixties sensibilities.  And she’s not trying to become a symbol of downward mobility.  Honest.  It’s just that the Beverly Hills she knew when she was growing up with Liza and Marlo and Jimmy Stewart’s and David Niven’s boys was so different.  “It wasn’t about money when I was growing up. The magic was really more in the people.”

Beverly Hills is still a company town, of course, but now it’s all so greedy and parvenu.  “Those tiny, intense executives,” Candice Bergen sighs in her husky contralto.  And those gaudy socialites like Candy S., with her indoor skating rink, bowling alley, her fur vault.  Those gems – never mind carats, poundsof diamonds, pearls, etc.  Candy B. says Candy S. wears so much jewelry, “she must have the national debt of Chile on her neck.”  Candy B. is no Hollywood wife.  She doesn’t beluga the night away.  She is into animal rights, for God’s sake, and she won’t even try on ranch mink, because, she says, “they’re electrocuted simultaneously in the anus and the mouth to make the pelts look better.”

So all right.  Why is she here?

Candy Bergen is here to save Monday night for CBS.

CBS used to own Monday night but lost it two years ago – eons in TV memory – to NBC.  If they can get it back . . . well, millions hang in the balance; the future of Alf is at stake.  That audacious alien anchors NBC’s Monday-night lineup, and cellar-dwelling CBS is counterprogramming with women’s shows.  Candice Bergen in Murphy Brown (slotted Monday at nine) delivered the critics right away and has just begun to deliver the ratings.  Murphy Brown is scoring especially high for CBS among female viewers in the coveted eighteen-to-thirty-four demographic.  And that is not inconsequential. 

The network didn’t particularly want Candy Bergen as its star in the beginning.  “People questioned her ability to handle a comedic role with the kind of level and range of this character,” explains Murphy Brown executive producer Diane English.  “There was a general reluctance to commit.  A certain amount of convincing had to be done.”  

No one had to convince Candy Bergen, though.  No indeed.  She went after Murphy Brown with both big baby blues blazing.  She even tested for it – in front of a group of taciturn network execs while nervously fingering Edgar Bergen’s engraved wristwatch, a gift from one of his radio sponsors.  Having grown up in a household where “getting laughs was more important than getting A’s,” with a moody Swede of a father, and longing to break through her own frosty reserve “by making a fool out of myself,” Candy Bergen was clearly out to prove something.

But why a sitcom?  Why would the ultimate Wasp fantasy female, known as low-key and classy, the coolest blonde in Hollywood since Grace Kelly, stoop to conquer sitcoms?  “I still can’t believe I’m in a sitcom,” she confides.  “I refuse to call it that.  I say I’m doing a comedy series.”

The truth is that Bergen’s guaranteed ten-to-five schedule three weeks a month, seven months a year, is also compatible with conscientious motherhood.  She can spend three hours in the morning with early-rising little Chloe before dropping her off at nursery school, and then be home to have dinner with her.  She’s also mad for her role.  “I love Murphy’s raw nerve endings,” says Bergen of the tough and brassy reformed-alcoholic workaholic career woman who happens to be rich and famous from TV news.

“My father always hoped I’d go into show business, and he always encouraged me to be funny,” Bergen had reminisced back in her dramatic living room overlooking Central Park during a New York Thanksgiving break.  “I think he hated it thatIdidn’t encourage that part of me more, but I always felt my looks created a barrier.”  Precisely.  Even in her fifth decade Candy Bergen’s beauty is still fresh, her sculpted face unlined. Her five-foot-eight-inch frame is far less imposing in person than it appears on the screen, and with this sort of physical equipment, presence, and poise, it’s easy to see why casting directors don’t think first of Candice Bergen for comedy.

But Bergen got her first and only Academy Award nomination, for Best Supporting Actress, when she was finally allowed to play a comic part – Burt Reynold’s estranged wife who wants to be a singer in Starting Over (1979).  That recognition was enormously gratifying to an actress who’s often taken a drubbing from the critics for being wooden and clumsy.  Then she was praised for playing a schlock novelist in Rich and Famous with Jackie Bisset.  Bergen became convinced that being self-deprecating saved her.  “I got to myself before they did.  That took the curse off my looks.  It was as if by making a fool of myself I evened the score a little bit.  I got to make fun of someone who looked like Candy Bergen.”

As she spoke, Chloe, Buster Brown-haired and blue-eyed, her jeans held up with red Mickey Mouse suspenders, had bounded in to hug her mother.  Louis Malle, who’s spending more of his time making movies in Europe now, was darting noiselessly around the apartment.  They are often separated these days.  “She has to work,” shrugged Malle.  Bergen smiled.  “Without a doubt my marriage and my child are what I am most proud of in my life, but it was making me more crazy not to work than to work.”

This is in spite of having been knocked for a loop by motherhood.  “The second Chloe came out I found it was like you’d blasted out the fourth wall,” marvels Bergen.  “The depths of the emotion and the intensity she brought was the most life-shaking experience . . . It’s the reason people do drugs, and I’d think, My god, drugs!  What’s drugs compared to this?”

Mindful of her own childhood, Bergen eschewed live-in help and mostly took care of Chloe herself, transporting her from one coast to another, and then to Europe to present her to relatives and close friends.  “Having a child certainly completed parts of me that begged completing,” she says.  “It’s made me more confident.  It’s made me infinitely happier.”  After Chloe, “I had no desire to get dressed up, put on mascara and have to smile all night at people I didn’t know.”  Yet eventually, when she did venture out, it got to Candice Bergen that “men’s eyes glazed over, and women looked at me curiously, like how could I have caved in so completely to motherhood?  I thought maybe I should get a job so I’d have something to say at dinner parties.”

But she didn’t want to work the way she had in the past.  “Television movies and feature movies come up so suddenly now . . . in a way they never used to.  They call you Friday to show up for work on Monday in London or Prague.  And you can’t disrupt a child’s life like that.”

Finally, it was the packaging prowess of good old William Morris that paved Bergen’s way back to the ranks of the regularly employed.  Newly signed with Morris last year, Bergen was handed the Murphy Brown pilot script written by Diane English, another William Morris client.  Bergen, who always regretted that she’d turned down an offer to be a 60 Minutes correspondent years ago, loved the script immediately: the story of this pencil-chomping refugee from Betty Ford who had to compete on a show like 20/20 with a ditsy former Miss America and be bossed around by a twenty-five-year-old twerpy executive producer.  Malle agreed.  She had to do it.

“That script went through this town like wildfire,” says Diane English in her executive bungalow on the Warners lot.  The producers were thinking maybe Jill Clayburgh, JoBeth Williams, Marsha Mason. Then when they went to New York to see Bergen, “I had expected to meet an amazon,” recalls English.  “But she seemed practically petite.  And I didn’t expect her to be as funny or warm or self-deprecating as she is.  She picked a stuffy restaurant [Petrossian] and then spent half the night apologizing for it.  She was very nervous.  She wanted this very badly, as it turned out.”

For lots of reasons. Candy Bergen had spent her entire childhood playing it straight to that dummy Charlie McCarthy.  Now it was her turn to get the laughs every week.

No other pretty little rich girl in Hollywood had an intense sibling rivalry with a wooden puppet. “Charlie was the focal point, the core,” of the family, she says.  “He got the laughs.  He got the fan mail.  He was my competition.”  Charlie, Charlie, Charlie.  In her appealing best-selling autobiography, Knock Wood, Bergen describes Sunday mornings, when in the privacy of their own breakfast nook Edgar Bergen would prop Charlie up on one knee and Candy on the other, his hands on the back of their necks, manipulating and speaking for both of them.  Even today she is noticeably uncomfortable trying to describe Charlie’s power and how his top billing in the family affected her, preferring instead to discuss how easily she can react to the Muppets.  Finally, she says, “The show was not ‘The Edgar Bergen Show,’ it was ‘The Charlie McCarthy Show.’  Charlie always had his own room.  He was not quite flesh and blood, but he was definitely more than a doll.  Actually, he was more than human because he had incredible power. First I was Charlie’s sister, then Edgar’s daughter.”  That awful Charlie also took her parents away from home for long periods, and although today she cherishes her exotic memories of riding on Walt Disney’s backyard choochoo, and watching her beautiful mother dance with Fred Astaire and Bergen’s elaborate Christmas parties, Candice Bergen remembers feeling “frightened and alone” during much of her childhood.

From the age of six, however (her adored brother, Kris, was not born until Bergen was fifteen), little Candy would appear on her father’s Christmas shows and was thrilled to please by flawlessly getting her first laughs.  By the time she was thirteen she was escaping out her bedroom window and nearly getting raped by a famous actor three times her age who tried to maul her in the front seat of his Cadillac convertible.

Bergen launched a successful modeling career when she was in her late teens.  Her looks also had a lot to do with her flunking out of Penn, where she’d gotten A’s and F’s simultaneously.  But so what?  She was barely nineteen and a mini-celebrity.  “It was quite tantalizing what I was being offered out in the world.”  Sidney Lumet asked her to play the coolly beautiful lesbian Lakey in the film version of The Group. Esquire gave her an assignment to write about it.  Before The Groupwas even released she was given a co-starring role with Steve McQueen in The Sand Pebbles.  That was followed by a shoot in Greece and then another with Yves Montand and Claude Lelouch in Africa.

“Her only flair is in her nostrils,” said Pauline Kael of Candice Bergen’s acting ability.  But it never occurred to one of the most beautiful girls in the world to study acting.  In the Hollywood Bergen grew up in, none of the greats, like Jimmy Stewart or Fred Astaire, took acting lessons.  “Basically they just got to be themselves on camera.  I deluded myself that I could do this.”

Both on-screen and off, Bergen played a grab bag of roles.  She scored for Mike Nichols in Carnal Knowledge but flopped in The Wind and the Lion.  A card-carrying Nikonette – she had discovered a passion for photography in college – she globe-trotted with her cameras slung round her neck, displaying a chameleon-like ability to adapt to the life of her man of the moment.  She went from pheasant shooting on the Continent with uptight European aristocrats into the arms of her old high-school flame, Doris Day’s son, record producer Terry Melcher, one of the hippest of the L.A. hip. Melcher had become fascinated with an erstwhile songwriter who led a scraggly commune, but when the guy started bugging them too much, he and Bergen fled to the beach in Malibu to live and rented their house on Cielo Drive to Roman Polanski.  No one ever knew if Charles Manson was really looking for Melcher the night he came to that house and murdered Polanski’s pregnant wife, Sharon Tate, and four others.

Following Melcher, there was a tense two-plus years with producer Bert Schneider (The Monkees, Five Easy Pieces, Easy Rider), who embodied Hollywood radical chic in the early seventies.  Candy met Fidel.  Click.  Candy got rolfed.  Click.  Candy hung out with Black Panthers.  Click.  Candy lay down on the floor of the U.S. Senate Building and got arrested.  “Bert was a terribly compelling man,” says her friend Brooke Hayward.  But he was also exhausting.

Defeated by constant fights with the mercurial Schneider, who insisted on a non-sexually-exclusive “open relationship,” her self-esteem shot, and at odds with her parents, who were horrified at much of her behavior, Bergen broke up with him to find solace in travel and writing: Ethiopia, Dar es Salaam, Rio, Kyoto, Teheran.

Then it all began to unravel when she turned thirty.

Although she later wrote a witty cover story for New York magazine about the experience, Candice Bergen’s nadir was reached while in Rome filming Lina Wertmüller’s disastrous first English-language movie, A Night Full of Rain, in 1977.  After several freezing nights during which she was hosed down with great gusts of water to shatter her defenses, Bergen totally lost it. In a magazine interview she gave to A.E. Hotchner in her Rome hotel suite, she confessed that a few months previously she had locked the door of her New York apartment – the globe-trotter was now a recluse – and had a “breakdown”.

“A delayed bomb.  You are thirty.  You are alone.  You have no man in your life.  No children. Your twenties have been spent and what have you to show for it?  A lot of rotten movies I did because they were being shot in interesting places where I wanted to go.  The dialogue was sickening and the people were sickening, but I kidded myself the experience was broadening.”

She worried that she was losing her looks.  “Under the eyes, around the mouth, it’s beginning to crumble.” And there was a lot of puppet paranoia: “I have this fantasy that someday I will have a handsome, man-size dummy whom I can sit on my knee.  I will put my hand in his back and he will be everything I’m looking for in a man.”

Today, Bergen, who repaired her relationship with her father before he died in 1978, professes to remember little of what she told Hotchner.  “I don’t feel I’ve traded on my looks in terms of how I could have.  I’m not really aware of my looks.  That shoot just left me a blithering idiot.  I did use travel as an escape, and I’m glad I did because now I have this great sheaf of experience – I loved journalism.  It gave me a tool to explore things that caught my curiosity.  I felt great freedom traveling – it was an escape from people’s reactions to how I look. That always got an inordinate reaction and it perverted people’s behavior.  It made people behave very unnaturally, in a way that made me feel uncomfortable.”

What about Louis Malle then? Does she feel that Malle, whom she married in 1980, has in a sense saved her?  “Louis and I really saved each other.  I wouldn’t have gotten married except for Louis.  We have a sense not of sanctity, but we’re almost reverential about our marriage.  That doesn’t mean we don’t drive each other nuts from time to time or pass through difficult periods.  We’re both pistols to live with, and when two pistols come together you have to holster your guns.”

These days Malle and Bergen spend their most concentrated time together at Le Coual, Malle’s farm in the South of France, where Chloe has her donkey, and where the family will repair when the Murphy Brown season finishes in April.  Last summer, because of the writers’ strike in Hollywood, Bergen was able to be there with Chloe and Malle for three entire months.  “It’s the kind of place where the most exciting thing is to watch the tomatoes grow,” she says.  “But it was such an important summer for us because of how much that house now means in terms of a refuge.”  Malle, who comes from a wealthy French family, has three brothers and three sisters.  “I come from this tiny, shrinking family, but when we get together with Louis’s family there are so many cousins and even great-grandchildren.  There are thirty of us and it’s wonderful . . . I can’t imagine what I would do without Louis.  If you don’t know us well we both come across as formal, reserved, and well mannered. But he’s so funny.  This marriage is a cornerstone for both of us.”

Fiercely loyal to her husband, Bergen is still fuming about Malle’s failure to get last year’s Academy Award for Best Foreign Film for his highly acclaimed Au Revoir les Enfants.  It was his sixth nomination, and he lost to Babette’s Feast.  “He was robbed,” smarts Bergen.  “Thank God the camera wasn’t on us when it was announced.”

That rebuke was largely responsible for Malle’s going back to Europe to launch film projects while his wife works in Hollywood five days a week.

But wait!  If Murphy Brown really takes off, really helps put CBS in the running Monday nights, it could conceivably, go on for five years or so.  And how can even the best adjusted, head-over-heels-in-love couple take a grueling tricoastal, bicontinental commute – granting summers off at glorious Le Coual — for five years.  “Frankly, no, we didn’t focus on five years at all,” Bergen admits.  “We focused on the pilot and we just won’t deal with five years.  Five years is like a trillion dollars – it’s really inconceivable.”

Inconceivable spending all that time living back home in Hollywood again, for sure.  Inconceivable when Candy S.’s house is “the size of an airport terminal,” and people like Marvin Davis employ two dozen security guards. Of course it’s great for Chloe to live near her grandmother and uncle, and for her mother to be surrounded by old and dear friends, but growing up here for Chloe would be “planted with perils.”  Candy sighs, “I see people who were equipped to be much more, to be wonderful painters or writers or whatever, but who have just subordinated or ignored those abilities to become agents or producers or business managers.”

These are not people one wants one’s child to grow up to be.  People old family friend Swifty Lazar calls “bottom liners.”

“The eighties are different from the fifties,” says Lazar.  “Now it’s how much money you have, not how much talent.  The wives have greater masses of jewels, and there is no entertainment without several columnists present.  That’s not the way it was done in the fifties and sixties:” — during the time Candy Bergen was growing up.  God knows, as Lazar says, “Candy ain’t no Hollywood tootsie.” Absolutely not.  “Candy is an aristocrat, if there is such a thing in that part of the world,” says Brooke Hayward, who was born into the same milieu. Hayward also finds Beverly Hills not the same these days.  “It’s shocking.  There’s no more quality.  For Candy, who’s been brought up with the best, it must be incredibly depressing. She has to come to grips with it. If Peter Duchin goes out there to play, for example, he can take a far more philosophical position – he never lived there.  But Candy has memories.”

Ironically, Hollywood nouvelle society would love to partake of Candy.  “She fits in everywhere.  She’s very European because of her husband,” says Jackie Collins, who last saw Candice Bergen in Beverly Hills “at Gelson’s supermarket wheeling a trolley.”

Bergen attends dinners given by her mother.  She’s seen at Spago and is nota recluse.  But it was her attendance over a year ago at the annual Yulefest of Marvin Davis, a.k.a. “the richest man this minute in Los Angeles,” that did it for Bergen.  “It made me see I really have no place here.”

The first tip-off was her car.  “I drove up in a station wagon with a baby seat.  Everybody stared at me as if I had the most exotic vehicle.  Most of the guests were worried about getting their stretch limos stuck in the portico.”  When she looked around for people she knew, Bergen recognized hardly anyone. “Out of hundreds there was just one table – my parents’ friends, Greg and Veronique Peck, Billy and Audrey Wilder, Mary and Irving Lazar, and Loretta Young – people like that.  That was the Beverly Hills I knew.  I was sort of shell-shocked, shaken, that here I was at this quintessential Beverly Hills party feeling like I really didn’t belong. I ended up at dinner talking to Warren Beatty about being newly old.  He told me it gets worse. ‘We’re all practically fifty.’”

Things like the Davis do made Bergen give up a book she had begun researching for Simon and Schuster, “a kind of Upstairs, Downstairs of Beverly Hills.”  It was a project she’d spent time on.  She’d already ridden around in a squad car with Beverly Hills cops, gotten a psychic facial, and watched kindly denizens feed croissants to the homeless.  She had already given up shopping downtown “because it’s so bizarre and creepy.”  Finally she couldn’t face the rest of Beverly Hills either.  “All the people you want to write about, you sort of can’t write about and still live here,” said Bergen thoughtfully.  “You don’t want to trash people and you don’t know how you can’t trash them.”

The next day Candice Bergen telephoned to make sure I understood “how very generous with charities the Marvin Davises are.”  She didn’t mention Candy S.

Yet no matter how long she’s stuck playing at Hollywood this time around, Candice Bergen has already reaped considerable rewards for undertaking her first sitcom.  And each day on the same Warners soundstage where My Fair Lady, Mame, and The Music Man were shot, she earns her stripes as a trouper. “She’s a buddy,” says director Barnet Kellman, “which is in contrast with her image.”  In any case, Candice Bergen is not going to let that dummy have the last laugh.

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