Listening to Candice Bergen talk about her days at the University of Pennsylvania in the mid-60s, you get the impression no one has ever been happier to have been chucked out of school.
Or, as she puts it, “pushed out of the nest.”
“I was ready to start my life, anyway. And though I loved my time at Penn, the time that I had, they were right to push me out. It was completely my fault,” said Bergen, who at Penn became Miss University and homecoming queen, but flunked out of opera and art (!), and accepted her expulsion with grace.
“I actually respect the university a great deal for sticking to the rules, in a way that I certainly did not,” she said. “It would have been easy for them to make an exception for me, but they didn’t.”
She returned to the university in 1992 to receive an honorary degree, and was back in town a few months ago for a Penn function.
“I recognized nothing,” said Bergen, who in the old days was billeted at 34th and Walnut, in a building long since replaced.
“I was so confused. The filthy pharmacy that I remember so well was gone, the drunk on the corner was gone, and those were my north stars. The area has been transformed, as has the city itself. It’s very impressive.”
That’s also a good a word to describe Bergen’s career, achieved without an undergraduate degree. Upon leaving Penn (during which time she famously went on a date with Wharton student Donald Trump), she immediately went to work on a Sidney Lumet film (The Group), the start of a long and fruitful film and television career, with diversions into photojournalism and writing — two best-selling memoirs, Knock Wood and A Fine Romance, the latter covering her marriage to filmmaker Louis Malle).
Bergen at 72 is still working hard, doing interviews for Book Club, in theaters Friday. It’s a movie she made with Jane Fonda, Diane Keaton, and Mary Steenburgen, Hollywood veterans who have survived and thrived in an industry famous (especially lately) for being tough on actresses.
When they were on the set, did they share war stories?
“Not really. We would gather in a garage during breaks and just yak about stuff that women yak about. Relationships, politics, whatever,” said Bergen, who bonded with Fonda over their shared background as children of Hollywood stars.
“She’s a good kind of friend to have. I had dinner for everyone at my house, there was a group photo, and Jane, who pays attention to things like lighting, spent 10 minutes Photoshopping it so everyone looked their best. Then she posted it on Instagram, where she has about a million followers. It was very exciting and very fun,” Bergen said. “It was just a real gift for me to become friends with three very accomplished people.”
Bergen and her costars play four lifelong friends and book-group pals who are inspired to take a more youthful approach to life after reading Fifty Shades of Grey. She praised Book Club writer/director/producer Bill Holderman, who pushed hard for the four stars when the studio wanted … less seasoned performers. His script is specifically about the lives of widows and grandmothers and December-December romances, and he wanted actresses who could embody those elements of the story.
“They wanted to go with younger actresses. It’s not uncommon,” said Bergen, who faced similar obstacles before landing what she regards as the most important role of her career — on TV in Murphy Brown. She’ll return to it when CBS reboots the show for the 2018-19 season.
“They wanted Heather Locklear. And they wanted my character to be returning from a spa, instead of the Betty Ford Clinic. And [producer] Diane English just kept saying, ‘No, she’s an alcoholic. It’s important to the character,’ ” Bergen said.
The groundbreaking role drew attention at the time for showing a single professional woman choosing to have a child on her own, but Bergen likes the way it broke ground in other ways. Murphy, she said, created new space for women — and for Bergen — to shine: to be tough as nails, funny as hell, attractive.
“That attractive women can be funny in the way that Murphy was funny. There’s a sort of double box, and it can keep you in one place or another, and Murphy just lived outside of all that,” she said.
And there’s nothing funny about what comedy can do to career longevity. The old joke in Hollywood is that there are three ages for women — babe, district attorney, and Driving Miss Daisy. But there is no time stamp on funny, and Bergen has been proof of that: In movies like Book Club, Miss Congeniality, and The Meyerowitz Stories, she’s stayed busy. With the return of Murphy Brown, she’ll be even busier.
“[The characters are] going to be doing a morning show, and our goal is to bring facts back to the news. It’s going to be a very timely show. And very funny.”