Friday Hoyden: Candice Bergen and her singing voice


Friday Hoyden: Candice Bergen

Candice Bergen got her start in modelling and radio as a child. After her “stormy” teens, she played her film debut as a lesbian Vassar graduate in 1965’s The Group, going on to a long film career. But she didn’t really get her start until she found comedy. Candice Bergen is best known for her more recent work in Murphy Brown, and her role as lawyer Shirley Schmidt in The Practice‘s spinoff Boston Legal, which has just closed on its fifth and final season.

Why do I have Bergen pegged as a Hoyden? The characters she has played on television does bust submissive femininity norms, so that’s part of it. But I think it’s her bad singing that has really reeled me in. It’s hard enough to sing in public when you can hold a tune, but it takes a special kind of hoydenish chutzpah to do it when you can’t. And I like that.

“Natural” Woman?

Candice Bergen plays a smart, stubborn, tightly-wound news anchor in long-running sitcom Murphy Brown. Perhaps her most well-known singing scene from the show is the scene where she quietly creaks out “Natural Woman” to her newborn son, after peppering the nurse with anxious questions about television and teething. (Video here – sorry about the low sound.)

But that’s not the only singing she did.

Here she is in the pilot episode, belting out “Natural Woman” alone after coming home from work. At least, she thinks she’s alone, until the painter in the next room decides to make his presence known.

And here she is singing “Natural Woman” with Aretha Franklin, who eventually accedes to her wish to join in with tuneless “Aaa-ooh!”s and the chorus.

How to interpret the recurring “Natural Woman” motif through the series? Though there’s a possibility of a less charitable reading, I like to think that it’s actually about the Murphy Brown character turning notions of “natural womanhood” on their head. Brown is cranky, annoying, independent, perfectionist, ambitious, sometimes snappish and unlikeable, and she tolerates incompetence poorly. She also can be vulnerable, awkward, finds it hard to nurture, and struggles with self-doubt. She’s a well-rounded, completely fleshed-out character. And she definitely doesn’t follow the “natural woman” lifescript of working in a low to medium level job, getting married, having children, raising a family of husband + wife + 2.3 children and a dog. She does have a baby, which some might read as some sort of capitulation to traditional femininity; she does it on her own terms, however, and anything that pisses Dan Quayle off is alright by me.

Bergen’s Feminist Stint on the Muppet Show

Here’s Candice Bergen giving a feminist twist to “Put Another Log On The Fire”, on The Muppet Show.

Boston Legal

Here’s a snippet of Bergen’s current work in Boston Legal. Boston Legal is a downright horrible show from a feminist point of view, packed with fauxgressive politics, with the eminently-slashable Alan Shore and Denny Crane relentlessly playing sexual harassment and assault for laughs. However, the Shirley Schmidt character shines through all of that, a combination of fierce intellect, power, and intense sensuality. Her depiction as an immensely desirable woman in her 60s is highly unusual for American TV dramedy.

There’s nothing flashy about this Boston Legal cold open, but Bergen’s presence and grace leaps off the screen. [Transcript on page 1 here, PDF.]

I’m looking forward to seeing what she does next.

[accessibility note: I’m rather worn out today so I have done brief descriptions rather than full transcripts. If you require a transcript for accessibility reasons, just drop a line and one of us should be able to manage one.]

Categories: arts & entertainment, Culture, gender & feminism, media

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15 replies

  1. I still rememeber the episode of Murphy Brown where they looked at the way people think that another woman’s hair ( especially’s if they’re famous) is public property and that they should have a say in what a woman does with.

  2. Writing this got me thinking about singing in public. Apart from choirs and carols and singing along while in a dancing crowd, I didn’t show my voice in public until after I became a parent. Now I sing out fairly happily with the lad while walking along, or in the playground, and I’ve sung lullabies aplenty with others around. I figure anyone who’s going to be bugged by A Child In Public is probably going to be equally bugged by me singing songs to said child, and since this never happens at night or at the top of my lungs near housing, any problem is the problem of the person having it at the time.
    Do you sing in public?

  3. I sing in public when I’m with my brownie guides. Nothing like a rousing chorus of “going on a bear hunt” to get random strangers eyebrows raised.

  4. This also reminds me of the scene from The Simpsons where Selma sings Natural Woman to Jub Jub the iguana. :)
    I’d like to think Patty and Selma count as at least hoyden-ish. I know they’re played for laughs as “desperate and dateless” and ill-mannered, but they’re usually doing exactly what they want to do, and know that even if they’d like to be in a relationship, a bad one’s not worth it, they’re not conventionally attractive and they don’t care, they’re prepared to tell it like it is, and so on.

  5. I sing in public all the time. I often sing (sometimes loudly, but only in non residential areas) on my way home from work in the morning. I sing along to the music I listen to on the walk home from school. I’ll sing when waiting for the bus. I sing songs to Don (not with Don) about history.
    I can’t carry much of a tune, and I’m awful and I don’t care. The only thing better than singing songs in public is blowing bubbles in public. Which I also do, but less, because bubble solution is leaky.
    Purrdence, I totally remember that episode. She “cut” her hair and people freaked out.

  6. Oh! Has anyone here read the Murphy Brown fic “but liquor is quicker”? It was a Yuletide fic a few years back.

  7. One of my favourite public places to sing is underground carparks, fun with echo-y acoustics. The kids sometimes join in :) Admittedly it’s not a very public space given that there aren’t often all that many other people around. I also often find myself singing (quietly) when I’m doing the grocery shopping, can’t resist joining in when the shop’s playing catchy songs over the PA.

  8. Mim, I occasionally find myself not only doing exactly the same, but occasionally discovering another person with a trolley doing the exact same thing! It’s a lovely moment of rapport when a stranger sings along with you in the crackers aisle.

  9. Ooh, Candace Bergen! It seems as though many women get more and more excellent and admirable as they age, and she’s one of them.
    Boston Legal was such a disappointment for me, because the writing is sharp and clever; the characters, compelling. But even the compromiser in me can’t put up with so much patriarchal sexuality. Eurgh.

  10. She sang a song when she hosted Saturday Night Live!
    Just let me make one thing clear
    it’s gonna be one hot night
    so let me do my thing here
    inside a hot spotlight
    everything will be dandy if you leave it to Candy
    That’s all I remember, but a neon sign came down from the ceiling–dazzling lights spelled “Candy”–and she was in Las Vegas showgirl garb; male dancers were in top hats and tails. They all picked her up a few times. It was great.

  11. I am not familiar with any of her earlier works. I only really discovered her on Boston Legal. When the show descended into the ridiculous she kept me coming back. I love the way she was strong, thoughtful, whole and complete. I hope that now that the show is canceled she will make her way back to television. I miss her already.
    Renee’s last blog post..Fox News Loves The Magic Negro

  12. So many public singers! I {heart} you all. I almost never hear anyone singing out and about.

  13. You might want to check out this Candice Bergen film ‘Starting Over’ in which her horrible singing is a key, comedic plot point.
    She was married to the great French film director Louis Malle, for many years.

  14. I love to sing in public. Fortunately, I’m a bit better than Bergen, but I have to admire her guts–not only the character’s, but also hers herself, to do that on national television.

  15. It isn’t public really but I love to sing in the car and I also love noticing other drivers who are singing. I like that feeling of having peeked beneath their public persona for a moment.


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