Sharp-witted, settled and commanding, Candice Bergen is in her own prime time –and Mme. Malle could tell pregnant Murphy Brown plenty about life as a solo mom
December 2, 1991
By Jim Jerome
Additional reporting by SUE CARSWELL and SABRINA McFARLAND in New York City
HER THROATY VOICE IS NOW AS FAMILIAR as that of an old friend -a very well bred, smart, gracious and funny friend who can effortlessly toss off her sharp-edged take on contemporary life. On the Clarence Thomas hearings: "I was listening on my car radio and I was screaming -'The length of his WHAT?' I almost drove off a cliff." Her car phone: "You look like a total schmuck using one. As they installed it, I saw my soul just leave my body."
Sure, but whose soul is it anyhow? The zingers are flowing from Candice Bergen all right, but, no, she is not channeling the spirit of Murphy Brown through a script at Warner Bros. studios in Burbank. The disarmingly candid and unrehearsed Bergen, 45, is sitting in the kitchen of her cottagelike hilltop home high above Sunset Boulevard, surrounded by towering pine and eucalyptus trees. Unwinding after a day on the Murphy set, Bergen has tucked daughter Chloe, 6, into bed and settled down for a leisurely dinner.
Bergen's husband since 1980, the Paris-based filmmaker Louis Malle, 59, is due in the next day for a visit - a trip he makes every month during the nearly seven months a year their careers keep them apart. "That's the one downside to all this-Louis's commute," she says. "It just wipes him out. I feel guilty and responsible for his exhaustion."
Murphy would have to alter her ego to mouth such empathetic patter; yet with her Emmy-winning show hovering headily in the Nielsen Top 5, Bergen is Murphy to tens of millions. And her three roles -wife, mother, Murphy- have, she says, brought her "a certain completion."
Bergen grew up in the privileged, gilded milieu of Hollywood's Golden Age, daughter of ventriloquist Edgar Bergen and Frances Westerman, a onetime Chesterfield Girl. Candice's early playmates included Liza Minnelli. But Bergen's restless curiosity about a real world out there -and a rebellious streak- led her to break away. Through the late '60s and '70s, even while her flawless looks locked her into Ice Queen roles, she was developing the keen eye of a photojournalist -as well as a feminist-activist conscience. Her circle of friends and acquaintances included everyone, from the Beach Boys to the Black Panthers.
Eventually she would float toward Malle, whom she married in 1980 at age 34. Around the same period, two comic roles -as the piano-pounding composer of Starting Over and the smug housewife turned potboiler writer in Rich and Famous-presented Bergen in a new light as an actress and a woman. Writing her richly detailed 1984 memoirs Knock Wood, helped her sort out her childhood -and by 1985 the edgy, independent Bergen had herself discovered motherhood. Three years later she discovered Murphyhood.
"My husband was very Scandinavian, and sometimes they find it hard to he demonstrative," says Frances (with son Kris, Candice and Edgar in 1978). "Candy evidently felt he was not affectionate. But she was just the cliché: the apple of his eye."
Yet it doesn't take long in the cozy, casual refuge Bergen has created to see how different she and Murphy are. Murphy is a merciless careerist; Bergen has lobbied Murphy executive producer-creator-writer Diane English to spread the story lines around to prevent burnout and give her more of the one thing having it all doesn't have going for it -time and energy for the home life that she waited so long to build. "Of course she has paid a price," says English. "Candice found her great love rather late in her life, and Louis and Chloe are the important things in her life. She and Louis are aware that Murphy is a drop in the bucket of a lifetime together. But if she ever felt two or three more years of separation would damage life with her husband or daughter, she would give it up."
But for now, Bergen, who in 1989 and 1990 won Emmys for Outstanding Lead Actress in a Comedy Series, has found a home in prime time. "It was always a dream to do comedy," she says. "This is the one area of acting where I ever felt passion, confidence and joy." To that mix she can add wealth (a renegotiated six-figure sum per show, plus a piece of Murphy's future syndication riches) and real, if reluctant, power as a feminist figurehead. When English wrote last season's cliff-hanger and this fall's series premiere around Murphy's pregnancy, both episodes shot to No. 1. "How potent a show is sneaks up on you," Bergen says. "We are not sending a message urging single women to have babies. The show has to portray the reality of how difficult it is. It isn't the ideal."
Bergen and Malle married in rural Lugagnac in 1980. "The fact that Louis is European was somehow better for me," she says. "He genuinely is comfortable with and likes women, and that's difficult to find in America."
Nor, for most marrieds with children, is the Bergen-Malle approach. In L.A. for a rare three-week visit, Malle (Pretty Baby, Atlantic City, Au Revoir les Enfants) says the Paris-to-L.A. flight "is murder" on his athletic body. Then too, "I find L.A. low energy," he says, sipping wine after 90 minutes of yoga. "I like a little more action.
Between August and March, they are mostly missing in action -and missing each other. Malle has an apartment in Paris as well as a 15th-century stone farmhouse near Toulouse. The obvious solution -Malle working in L.A.- wouldn't suit the cinema auteur: "American film industry people are into control. I'm ridiculous about my freedom."
Independence, they claim, doesn't work to weaken their bonds. "I have a strong solitary nature," Bergen says. "If Louis were here all the time and not working, it would frankly be a strain on me." Yet, absence makes the heart work harder when they shift from what she calls "the single gear to the unity mode. Sometimes it takes a while to recapture the real depth of intimacy." They both, for instance, prefer sleeping with open windows, but there are differences. Malle is more social; Bergen likes staying home. "Louis is a total French intellectual -with an exhausting metabolism and indefatigable curiosity," she says. "I'm as stimulating as a squash. I don't know how he manages with me."
The frequent-flyer bit, Malle admits, is "not terribly easy, but having a little time out is not necessarily a disaster. At least there is no routine."
They usually spend spring in what Bergen calls the "ragged, almost psychotic energy" of New York City, where they live in the duplex apartment overlooking Central Park she has had for 15 years. Then it's off to Malle's restored ruin called Le Coual ("the Raven's Cry"), where his children from two previous relationships —Cuote, 20, and Justine, 17- visit and blend smoothly. (He is a junior at Brown studying in Paris; she is finishing high-school there.) Bergen says she found stepmotherhood so "joyous that it was responsible for my decision to have a child despite the geographic difficulties."
In France, where Murphy is shown dubbed, Bergen says she is known merely as "insane Mme. Malle," in part for serving dinner guests "lethal and fiery" chili. "I cook more often than any of us would wish," she says. She does her own marketing, hikes into the countryside, paints prehistoric animals and symbols in nearby caves with Chloe and savors her serenity en famille. Malle, she says, is an "exceptional dad" to his three kids -canoeing, bicycling, playing Scrabble. "It's the way people spent time together 40 years ago," she says.
In fact her own anchoring took hold four decades ago. Remembers Candice: "My parents were intent on giving me values: good education over a fancy car; travel over shopping. Thoughtfulness, pursuing your curiosity, a sense of humor."
Yet, says Bergen, Edgar and Frances traveled extensively, leaving their then only child (brother Kris, now an L.A. film-and-video editor, arrived when Candice was 15) with a nanny. "I didn't become close with my mother until 10 or 15 years ago. My father was a magical and mythical figure. I idolized him and desperately sought his approval, while goading him for any reaction." She wishes Edgar, who died in 1978, had seen her as Murphy. "My father would have loved the show," she says. "I can hear him sitting in front of the TV and chuckling. I think of him all the time when I'm doing it. It's exactly the kind of show where if he saw it and I wasn't in it, he'd say, 'How come you can't get in that one?'"
As a teenager, Bergen admits, "I caused both my parents a lot of pain." Rebellion -"in virtually every way"- was her stock-in-trade. At 14, Candice spent a term at Montesano school in Switzerland and stunned her parents when she smoked cigarettes and ordered Bloody Marys. She was soon back home at the tony Westlake School for Girls, where longtime friend Connie Freiberg remembers Bergen as "deeply mischievous. One morning at 8:15 in history class, Candy was sneaking something. I asked her what it was. 'Fish,' she said. It was a jelly donut. This was a very strict school. But she got away with this stuff because she had this look, this authority and grace." Candice was editor of the school paper and May Queen of the class of '64. By then she had also earned a rep as "the class sarc." "For firing off sarcastic one-liners," Bergen says. "I also did voices, so I'd call as my mother and excuse myself from school for a doctor's appointment."
Bergen lasted but a year at the University of Pennsylvania because she flunked art and opera. But before she left, she pursued her passion for photography and became a Ford model in New York City, using her cover-girl fees to buy cameras. At age 19, she played a glamorous lesbian in the 1966 film made from Mary McCarthy's best-seller The Group. But her photojournalistic skills earned her plum gigs -"amazing experiences"- taking her from Lebanon to India, from shooting Charlie Chaplin to Haile Selassie.
"Now, I'd be more confident tackling films," says Bergen (in 1971's Carnal Knowledge with Art Garfunkel, left, and Jack Nicholson).
She eventually went native in her own hometown, in such occasional, estimable films as The Sand Pebbles (1966) and Carnal Knowledge (1971) but also in more than her fair share of stinkers. "There were almost no strong, dignified, assertive women parts," she says. "Most of it was the sullied female, the trampled blond."
Gloria Steinem, who has known Bergen since the '60s, remembers her as imprisoned by her looks offscreen as well. "Candice was always so breathtakingly beautiful that it was distracting for men especially but even for her women friends. She was so beautiful that you could almost not listen to the inner person. The inner person was always funny and sardonic and not at all a stereotypical beauty."
Romance did not come easily. Looking back, Bergen says her baggage included, a "high sense of drama" that made her "resistant, solitary, very remote. I didn't want to compromise. I was also too needy. The trap for women then was once you caved, you relied on relationships for a sense of completion."
She met Malle through a friend and fell in love over an all-afternoon lunch at Manhattan's Russian Tea Room. "Since I've met him, I haven't had that loneliness that I was so used to living with," Bergen says. "It is axiomatic that once you are fairly complete in yourself, you are able to have a relationship and not make inordinate demands on it. I do think of him as really saving my ass.
Her life now clearly focuses on Malle and Chloe -and despite the intercontinental disruptions, the Murphy-Mommy track often incorporates the mundane. There are the twice-weekly 8 A.M. car pools, serving hot lunches at Chloe's kindergarten, outings to Malibu beaches and Santa Barbara stables, and even what she calls a "cottage industry" of princess dress drawings. Bergen works hard not to spoil her child. Chloe is already saving money to buy an acre of the rain forest and receives but one Christmas gift from her parents and one from Santa. "I'm handling this very much as I was raised," says Bergen. "Conservative."
And politically correct. "Every day around here is Earth Day," says Bergen, a committed environmentalist and animal-rights activist. "Chloe's fierce. I had something on in calfskin and couldn't get out of the house. She knows who Saddam Hussein is, she can show you Kuwait on the globe. When Chloe was 2, we gave her a tepee and explained about cowboys and Indians. Once I wanted her to leave the tepee and go to bed. She said, 'No, if I leave my tepee, the cowboys will steal my land.'"
Bergen tries hard not to spoil herself or her child. "We buy at the Gap. She's the raggediest kid in her class. At preschool there were kids in gold Gucci T-shirts." She says she bought a "midlevel" BMW and then was so guilt-stricken she "drove it into a post." She hates shopping and cruises catalogs from duck hunters' to Victoria's Secret ("not the hot stuff, the terry robes").
Bergen admits that the "high-profileness" and the burden of carrying her show are wearing. Her workdays leave her 'exhilarated," "running on empty," "on overload"-but she'll take it. "My life has been so unbelievably full," she says. "I don't squander time looking back. I'm just never not grateful. This is the most productive time of my life. Thank God, I've got my family, I've got time with my daughter, a husband who does what he can to accommodate me. I don't think life is going to get much better than it is at this moment."