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.
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.
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.]