Candice Bergen
Candice Bergen

What comes to mind about Candice Bergen as she’s inducted into the Academy of Television Arts & Sciences Hall of Fame this week is how she combined beauty, brains and a sense of humour.

Murphy Brown, her signature role, is a good example. She was a strong, smart, professional woman, a TV journalist, who wasn’t perfect and even a little prickly, but admirable just the same. Her more recent role as Shirley Schmidt on Boston Legal shows similar qualities.

I am sure few would’ve expected such a solid comedic career after her serious and controversial start.

The last role a young actress in the 1960s would choose for her film debut would be a lesbian, one would think. But after following in her mother’s footsteps as a fashion model, Candice was still in college when she played a lesbian in her first feature film, The Group, an ensemble movie directed by Sidney Lumet.

What made it such a brow-raiser was not even that such topics were taboo back then, but that she was the all-American girl, the daughter of a benign and beloved entertainer, Edgar Bergen. Edgar was an actor and ventriloquist known all over the world with his clever and charismatic dummy sidekick, Charlie McCarthy.

So Candice was in the public eye from birth. And to perpetuate her notoriety, she grew into a stunningly beautiful young woman. Choosing The Group for her debut role, then, was obviously a shocker.

The film followed a group of elite college friends from their school years during the Depression and beyond. Candice’s character was a sullen young woman, no surprise there for a lesbian character in that time, but the tragedy of her sexuality seemed diminished because it was Candice Bergen in the role. I suspect that in this case, Hollywood couldn’t make homosexuality look as horrible and hopeless per their usual, because she was so damned appealing.

I wonder if her preconceived public image motivated her to choose controversial projects? Four years later, she’s hopping the fence again to dabble in lesbianism, for her character in The Adventurers.

In 1971, she starred in Carnal Knowledge with Jack Nicholson and Art Garfunkel, a film that again shocked the masses because it dealt frankly with sex. The movie wound up at the heart of an obscenity case that went all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court, which determined that the subject matter was not enough to make the film obscene. I suppose that today’s reality TV shows wouldn’t have stood a chance back then because reality, in general, was kept in the closet.

The film that finally established Candice as a comedic actor was Starting Over, with Burt Reynolds. She couldn’t sing but attempted to do so with gusto, serenading Reynolds with the title song. She earned an Oscar nomination for the role.

She went on to win five Emmys for Murphy Brown and numerous award nominations for other roles. She’s one of those actors who brings a little extra cred to a project and seems to elevate a role, no matter how small; from the snarky New York mayor confronting Reese Witherspoon as her potential daughter-in-law in Sweet Home Alabama, to the former beauty queen butting heads with Sandra Bullock in Miss Congeniality.

Candice has a way of playing sinister or smart, funny or frantic, and still imparting a sense of fun and a touch of class.