Candice Bergen - Take a million, Miss Brown
The Mail on Sunday 19th November 1989
To Americans Candice Bergen is newswoman Murphy Brown: the one-time Hollywood ice maiden is now playing for laughs - and more - in a hugely successful TV series. Which is nice network if you can get it, as the programme is raking in both dollars and fans, making even more rich and famous
There are eight people in the outer office of the Blue Room at Warner Brothers Television headquarters in the smog-filled graffitied city of Burbank. The only thing beautiful around here is Candice Bergen, but she’s surrounded by suits. There’s the man from the CBS television network, his two assistants, an instant grinner from the syndication company and three floaters hovering like spaceships wanting to land. You pray Miss Bergen will ask for a glass of water just to see the splash.
Meet Candice Bergen, 42, wife (of accomplished French film director Louis Malle, 56), mother (of Chloe, three), daughter of an American TV icon (the late ventriloquist Edgar Bergen), writer (Esquire, Cosmopolitan), author (1984 autobiography Knock Wood), photographer (Charlie Chaplin for Life magazine), star of landmark films like The Group, Carnal Knowledge, Soldier Blue, The wind and The Lion, Gandhi, and Oscar nominee for 1981’s Starting Over.
But ask 90 per cent of America who Candice Bergen is today and they’ll tell you: Murphy Brown. It’s one of the greatest successes on television here and has made the actress so long regarded as the Grace Kelly of her generation (‘Her only flair is in her nostrils,’ wrote critic Pauline Kael of Bergen’s early emoting) a bona fide, over-the-top, as-big-as-you-can-get sensation, winning her her first Emmy.
Murphy Brown has lots of ego and insecurity, is a graduate of the Betty Ford clinic, is tough but vulnerable, a fighter for content over fluff and the co-host of a Washington-based television news programme. She knows presidents and foreign leaders, chain chews No 2 pencils and has great legs. She’s all newswoman. She’s asked every tough question going and in her pre-Betty Ford drinking days faxed her breasts to the West Coast. She’s the mistress of the put-down and will shoot from the lip and concern herself with the consequences later.
‘She’s such a fiery character and I love playing someone who is so uncensored. It’s really exhilarating to play someone who doesn’t have any kind of governor on her behaviour. You know. I have the very same sense of humour but I usually save it for my close friends.’
Bergen is contracted to Murphy Brown for five years, and in the world of American network television and follow-up syndication deals worldwide she’s quite right when she says such success means ‘trillions of dollars.’
The second season has just started in the States, and for millions 9pm on Mondays is sacrosanct. A year ago it would have been hard to name two people who would stay home to watch Candice Bergen in anything. The BSB television company in Britain has sidestepped the BBC and ITV to buy the series.
She moves quite stiffly. She shakes a few hands. She’s left the set of Murphy Brown for an hour. She’s eaten lunch. Is she thirsty? ‘ A Glass of water would be nice.’ Great. The suits tumble and rumble and there’s a wry look on Candice Bergen’s face.
It must be nice. The CBS television network did not want to cast her as Murphy Brown. And Kim LeMasters, president of CBS Entertainment, has since confessed: ‘I didn’t think she could do it.’
Bergen did. So much so that the lady who refuses to have a car phone (‘I would rather kill myself’) telephoned the show’s co-producer Dianne English from a 747 at 35,000 feet and said she, a movie star, would be interested in starring in Murphy Brown, a lowly – on the Hollywood scale – situation comedy.
‘From the network I got steadfast resistance. They’ve been terribly nice since but I did expect quite a different reaction. It was actually quite a humbling experience because I thought the network would be beside themselves that I would actually consider doing a series. But if it hadn’t been for Diane English I never would have been cast.’
She really is a daughter of Hollywood. This is someone who grew up with Charlton Heston and David Niven inside the Santa Claus suite at Christmas. Her mother was model Frances Westerman, her father until his death in 1978 was adored like Bob Hope and her childhood friends were Mia Farrow and Liza Minnelli. She remembers riding through Walt Disney's property on a miniature train with her father as engineer. She also recalls that Charlie McCarthy, the ventriloquist's joke-spouting dummy, had a bigger bedroom and more clothes than she did. There's a lot of heartache in sharing your childhood and your father with a carved-up piece of wood. In the press she was 'Charlie's sister'. There have been many years of thinking and rethinking, and therapy three times a week. She says: 'Clearly, my father did love me but he was a remote man.'
Her Knock Wood autobiography examined and commented on that relationship but took five years to write. She'd been a Hollywood rebel with some cause, modelling and then taking roles like her first in 1966 as Lakey the lesbian of The Group - more for exotic value than dialogue. There were dates with Doris Day's son Terry Melcher, who was fascinated by a supposed songwriter called Charles Manson. Bergen and Melcher rented their house to Roman Polanski and quietly moved out to the beach at Malibu. Twenty years on, no one really knows who the Manson 'family' were looking for the night they murdered the pregnant Sharon Tate and four others.
The 70s were full of protest, the Black Panthers and then travel (Rio, Ethiopia, Teheran) and then an arrest during an anti-Vietnam War protest at the US Senate. It all sounds so similar to that other daughter of Hollywood, Jane Fonda: the rebelling against the silver spoon and the reconciliation with father in maturity. In 1977 Candice said she'd had 'a breakdown, a 30-year-old mid-life crisis. I would burst into tears at dinner for no reason or sit in a flannel robe on a rocker, religiously watching The Bionic Woman and whimpering: "What's to become of me?" '
She found Louis Malle. They met at parties in the 70s and they met again for lunch in New York in 1980. 'It's a very happy, very lucky marriage. It's a nine-year marriage this week. I was ready for the relationship, more receptive. I think if we had got together two years earlier it wouldn't have worked. I had spent quiet time with myself without escaping which was essential. My husband really likes and really appreciates women and enjoys their company and their conversation. I think American men are very ambivalent about women - or perhaps just about American women. But my husband is also a very typical Frenchman. He's curious about everything. He has much more of an American sense of humour than a French one.'
And Candice Bergen has a sense of humour. She had to fight to be funny opposite Jackie Bisset in 1981's Rich and Famous. But it wasn't just the chance to be funny that turned her on to Murphy Brown. It was the chance for an equable working life and being in one place - Beverly Hills - for seven months at a time and then flitting over to the family farmhouse in the South of France or the Paris apartment.
It was the birth of Chloe that revised her thinking ('I never used to like babies -1 used to think if a baby were more like a chimpanzee I'd have one') and turned her globetrotting thinking and attitudes into the more traditional. 1 wasn't one of those people that was good with kids but then Chloe was born and in that second everything just completely nipped over.
'And I get more time than most working mothers do to spend with their children; I don't need to be at work till 10.30am and I'm home by 6pm, with a week off a month. But being in a fixed place for seven months was a real benefit for my daughter. 'I love not waiting for the phone to ring. I find that unsettling, and I'm getting time to spend with my family who I haven't seen much of in the past two years. Features and TV movies seem to come up overnight: "OK, you have to be in Burma by Thursday." That's just unacceptable if you're going to raise a family.'
What is also unacceptable is fan-mania. After years as a Hollywood celebrity Candice Bergen is only now finding out what a power television is and what incredible fame can bring. There have been threats and problems -security forbids details. 'Of course, it worries everyone and we have security at the show now. It worries me in a medium where you are much more visible than in a film. I don't like that aspect of it.
'I think the people of this country are getting crazier and crazier and are looking for more focus, more playbacks of the craziness. I don't think it's going to get better. I just think people have to be very careful not to provoke it. I'm not looking over my shoulder all the time but there are certain times when I certainly don't go out in public with my daughter.'
And it's her daughter who gives her concern about the future. Tm concerned for children here. This country goes on wondering why people get raped and beaten to death in the park. I saw Lethal Weapon II and it presented grotesque violence as cartoon violence, and it was sandwiched between love scenes and jokes. No wonder people beat a young woman to death and just go off and have pizza after. That's how it's presented.'
Her thoughts wander to the South of France and the farmhouse where Chloe has her donkey and her mother hitches the donkey to a cart and picks up groceries.
On television she's playing the quintessential celebrity journalist in fortysomething-land and it's made her more rich and famous than she ever dreamed. Mindful of her own childhood she gives her daughter every attention but is careful about overloading her with toys and clothes. 'I feel that money should be given to people that really need it and that's why Los Angeles makes me so nuts. It bothers me that people who can earn hundreds of millions of dollars are desperate to find ways to spend it on themselves and are so schmucky about it - it's like giving the finger to people who got the short end of the stick.
'I took Chloe to school the other day and one of the mothers had murals painted on her toe-nails. A different mural on each toe. My husband thinks there's something in the water - you just don't see that stuff anywhere else.'
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