Candice Bergen’s first volume of memoirs – Knock Wood – was published in 1984, a few years after she married director Louis Malle. Up to that point, she was primarily known as a model and sometimes-actress, as well as, the daughter of famed ventriloquist Edgar Bergen (and sister of his iconic dummy, Charlie McCarthy). Her career was fitful, with some success (an Oscar nomination for 1979’s Starting Over, a run at hosting Saturday Night Live), but for the most part, Bergen seemed like an ill-at-ease leading lady. A lot has happened in Bergen’s career and life in the 30 years that led up to her second autobiography, A Fine Romance. Her marriage to Malle ended with his death in 1995, she married real estate mogul/philanthropist Marshall Rose, and she emerged in the late 1980s as a brilliant and funny comedienne with the classic sitcom Murphy Brown, and in the 2000s had a second successful stint on Boston Legal. Bergen recounts these milestones as well as getting older in a charming, frank manner with a wry and droll voice.
Unlike most celebrity memoirs, A Fine Romance doesn’t really do dish. Famous people pop up – mostly in the peripheral. The bulk of the book is more on Bergen’s life and career. She’s self-effacing, almost to a fault, and doesn’t try to sweeten any details. She refreshingly clear-eyed about her career pre-Murphy, calling it “wispy, erratic” and “undistinguished.” She’s also honest about her celebrity status post-Murphy, admitting that she often will have to spell her name out to receptionists. There’s more than just modesty to her candor – she’s also aware of how Hollywood treats actresses of a “certain age.” Because Bergen’s acting career never seemed like an organic part of her, it doesn’t look like she’s terribly concerned if her place on the showbiz hierarchy has slipped.
Because of Murphy Brown, Boston Legal, and the string of shrew roles Bergen played in the past 15 years or so, readers may be surprised at how sentimental and traditional the actress really is. She cops to using baby talk at time with her daughter, and though feminism does have its place in A Fine Romance, Bergen doesn’t embrace the title or the ideology with militant force. She’s not a pushover, but she’s a bit old-fashioned in her values. What’s fascinating is Bergen’s first-hand account of what it was like for those six months back in 1992, when Vice President Dan Quayle attacked Murphy Brown when the title character decided to become a single mother. Bergen quickly became the symbol of the uneasy mingling of politics and celebrity, appearing on covers of magazines and newspapers and being inserted in the mommy wars. Bergen’s position was that Quayle missed the mark and lost an opportunity to start a meaningful debate on families – though she’s far kinder to the former Veep than Murphy ever would be.
As the tile implies, much of the book covers Bergen’s relationships – with Malle and Rose. Malle and Bergen were married for 15 years. In A Fine Romance, Malle is a brilliant, sensitive, and at-times difficult man. It’s clear that Bergen loved the man, though she wasn’t blind to his faults, nor does she hide his insecurities or debits. Bergen’s career peak took place during her marriage, and she’s honest about how her sudden fame took a toll on the marriage – particularly because she would have to travel more than Malle hoped she would. His illness and death from lymphoma are also covered, and these passages are predictably sad. Bergen’s take on her late husband is that he was proud, so to have a disease systematically carve out his abilities and faculties makes for poignant reading. Bergen may have indulged in self-pity privately, but she doesn’t allow herself to do so on paper – as bad as she describes her memories, she always takes pains to remind the readers that she was fortunate, compared to a lot of other spouses of terminally-ill people.
The passages that detail Marshall Rose are lighter, though no less engaging. She writes of the growing pains her daughter Chloe had in accepting a stepfather, and she writes about the angst she felt toward her own stepchildren from her marriage to Malle (she opts out of inviting Malle’s children to her wedding to Rose, which she ruefully regrets). Because we’re reading about a very affluent woman, the family bonding takes place on exotic trips to ski resorts or places like Israel. None of this is boasting, but merely a part of Bergen’s world. And she doesn’t take her wealth for granted (there’s a chapter devoted to money and her gratitude for the Murphy millions she earned). Because her second marriage took place at a different time in Bergen’s life, the issues that she faced were quite distinct from when she was married the first time. One of the main things Bergen faced during her second marriage was aging – she suffered a minor stroke and some broken bones as well as weight gain (which she joyfully embraces).
Discussing aging and weight is rather brave for Bergen, a performer whose primary appeal is her looks. Despite being an accomplished comedienne, she has often been reduced to her beauty (though interestingly enough, Murphy Brown rarely made her beauty the point of the joke; though on Boston Legal, her beauty was a large part of her comedy). And she discusses the changes in her looks with a disarming frankness. She admits that she doesn’t look like she did before, and she does concede to some minor plastic surgery – but she’s refreshingly blase and not at all vain about her looks. And really, that is why Candice Bergen, the author, is so appealing. She takes on subjects like beauty, fame, money, success, family, love with a wry, perpetually-raised eyebrow and a bemused smirk which all make for a very fun and engaging read.