With 21 Emmy, Oscar and Golden Globe honors, does Candice Bergen, 72, once TV’s top-paid talent, feel a burning need to leave her Architectural Digest-featured New York home and homebody husband to be a Hollywood workaholic again? “Not at all. No,” she tells AARP. “I don't like to work a lot, just every so often.” Yet she’s back big time, unable to resist the fun of reviving her smash 1988-98 hit Murphy Brown this fall and having a blast with a fantastic cast (Jane Fonda, 80, Diane Keaton, 72, and Mary Steenburgen, 65) in the new film Book Club, the AARP set’s answer to Sex and the City.
“My character is a trial judge and very no-nonsense, very focused, very rigid in her outlook,” Bergen says. “In their book club for women, they read Fifty Shades of Grey, protesting that it has no literary merit — and then the book ends up throwing all their lives into a sort of pleasant chaos.”
Jesse Dittmar for The Washington Post via Getty Images
Like the CBS president who tried to replace Bergen with younger Heather Locklear in Murphy Brown, executives were leery about the grownup cast of Book Club. “The studio didn’t want to go with older actresses,” she told the Philippine Daily Inquirer. “They wanted younger, vibrant actresses, but there’s nobody more vibrant than us. My age now is the best I’ve ever felt, aside from the fact that I have fake hips. …
“Some friends of mine are very protective about keeping their age a secret, but I don’t understand why, frankly. It’s very out of date. We should feel privileged to grow older. I’m 72, so what’s the big deal?”
Melinda Sue Gordon/PARAMOUNT PICTURES
Book Club raises serious issues about aging in a funny, upbeat, empowering way, and it points out the cultural impact of grownups in book clubs. “Middle-aged women are the mainstay of literary culture in America,” says Bergen, whose memoirs won raves from literary critics, “and I mean, books are hanging by a thread, no question. Women, older women especially, will like the movie because it reflects their lives.” She loves the movie’s message. “What the movie encourages is, life doesn’t end as soon as we’re programmed to think it does,” Bergen told the Inquirer. “First of all, value your female friendships. Leave yourself open to possibilities.”
Bergen’s got plenty of possibilities herself, scarcely slowed down by a minor 2006 stroke that didn't prevent her Emmy nomination for Boston Legal, on which her character, Shirley Schmidt, dumps Denny Crane, played by William Shatner, 87. “Women don’t leave Denny Crane — and for a secretary!” Denny protests. “It was the secretary of defense,” Shirley replies — a perfect example of her sharp, snappy, grownup persona.
“At an age when most actresses are being phased out, I am being phased in — with a vengeance,” she told Marie Claire. Bergen's an inspiring role model for grownups, because she started out as a teen beauty with no visible talent and grew into one of the Hollywood greats, partly by growing up emotionally. "As you get older, you get much smarter. I'm 100 percent smarter now than when I was 30 or 40," she told the Inquirer.
The timing for a revival of Murphy Brown — which gave Bergen her biggest break, at 42 — is opportune.
“It was smart entertainment, and we’re not dumbing it down. Murphy Brown was always one of the most engaged shows socially and politically, and we’re coming back strong, as smart and informed as ever,” she tells AARP. The original showrunner and core cast are back, along with newcomer Tyne Daly, 72, and execs bet it will do for CBS what Roseanne did for ABC and Will & Grace did for NBC. “Cable forced network television to relax its strictures,” says Bergen. “They're far more open about what you can and can't say. And as far as older people on television, I don't think they want too many of them. But as long as they bring an audience, they make an exception.”