By Sue Reilly
December 07, 1981 12:00 PM

She might have been the pluperfect Girl of the Golden West, the type of tawny blonde apotheosized in songs by the Beach Boys. But as an actress one thing was missing: Instead of radiating the hedonistic aura of a Fawcett or a Somers or a Derek, Candice Bergen always tripped over her intelligence. For most of her life, she admits, “I never was comfortable in my own skin.” It showed in her film work. Despite Beverly Hills breeding, Ivy League schooling and beauty that could make a man’s teeth ache, Bergen delivered self-conscious performances that critics invariably likened to her late father Edgar’s wooden dummies. The surprise no one could have anticipated, then, is that in her past two films Bergen has daringly played against her beauty-with-brains stereotype and scored unexpected triumphs as, of all things, a light comedienne. Could it be that, at 35, Candice has finally learned to laugh at herself?

Well, not without a struggle. In her current high-grosser, Rich and Famous, Bergen and Jacqueline Bisset portray two writers. But instead of getting the role of the cerebral belletrist, Candice was offered the part of a Southern-fried bubble-head. “I kept saying, ‘You want me to play the dumbbell? Me?’ ” Bergen remembers. “Here I was, 35, not married and doomed to spend a life alone doing serious work—Jackie’s role was my life story, for heaven’s sake.”

Her first experience in casting against type was in 1979’s Starting Over. As Burt Reynolds’ songwriter wife, Candice nearly stole the movie in one memorable scene in which she caterwauled one of her own tunes while wearing a see-through blouse. “I kept trying to tell them I was much too fine a person to play such a twit,” Bergen recalls, “and I ended up with an Oscar nomination for Best Supporting.”

Her newfound professional confidence may also have contributed to her decision to end her longtime status as one of Hollywood’s Most Eligibles. When the filming of Rich and Famous was halted last summer by the actors’ strike, Candice slipped off to France and married a man she’d met less than a year earlier, French director Louis Malle. On the face of it, Malle, 49, whose most recent film is the artsy My Dinner With André, seems an unlikely candidate to lure Bergen to the altar. The diminutive, sad-eyed heir to a French sugar fortune had already seen his three-year marriage to Anne-Marie Deschodt end in divorce. He later fathered two out-of-wedlock children by actresses Gila von Weitershausen and Alexandra Stewart. What’s more, Malle was just ending a three-year affair with Susan Sarandon, 35, who starred in his best-known American releases, Pretty Baby and Atlantic City.

The match was actually initiated a decade ago by Candice’s college chum Mary Ellen Mark, a free-lance photographer. “Mary Ellen told me she had met the man I should marry,” Can-dice says. “It was Louis. But if I had met him at that time, I would never have been ready for the relationship we have now. It was magical, in a way, that I had had my growth period, had sorted out my life, and was open when we did meet.”

Sorting out her life, by Bergen’s own reckoning, took three decades. Born into showbiz royalty and sent to Beverly Hills’ exclusive Westlake School, Candice remembers being “the only one with no jewelry, no car and the earliest curfew. My parents didn’t believe in extravagance.” At 14, she talked them into sending her to a boarding school in the Swiss Alps. “The rival dorms would have wars with diamond rings being used as brass knuckles. One time a naked man dropped from the balcony above mine into a snowbank; I never did find out what that was all about,” Bergen laughs. “No one shaved her legs until December, when the ski instructors hit town.” At Christmas, Bergen’s folks visited. “I fetched them at the depot with a heavy blond rinse all over my hair, then took them to a restaurant where I promptly ordered a Bloody Mary and lit up a Salem. I’d left home Sandra Dee, and three months later I was Sadie Thompson.”

One semester after that, her parents hustled Candice back home. She has in the past criticized her father for his stoic Scandinavian values. To her he also seemed to pay more attention to her cellulose siblings, Charlie McCarthy and Mortimer Snerd, than to her or her younger brother, Kris, now a 20-year-old college student. But today Candice credits Edgar’s strictness for her own independence. “He was such a good man,” she says. “I should have told him how much I came to appreciate the way I was raised.” As for mother Frances, now 57, Candice says, “When my father died three years ago, my mother was alone for the first time. She grew up in the man-on-the-white-charger school of femininity. She’s still very lonely. But I’m very proud of the way she has taken charge of her own life.” Indeed, Frances Bergen had a cameo in Rich and Famous.

In 1963 young Candice enrolled as an art history major at the University of Pennsylvania. She also began modeling. “It was a little difficult trying to be an ordinary student when my face was plastered all over glitzy fashion magazines,” she says. “I was shy and self-conscious. It was shameful to be that lucky and not be happy.”

Bergen dropped out in her junior year to make her movie debut at 19 as the patrician lesbian Lakey in 1966’s The Group. Of the movie offers that followed, Bergen deliberately chose those with the most exotic locations: Taiwan for The Sand Pebbles, Greece for The Day the Fish Came Out, France for Live for Life and Greece again for The Magus (in which a stand-in did her frontal nudity scene). Said Candice wryly of those turkeys, “I was mostly slapped, assaulted, raped and seduced by impotent lovers. I got screen orgasms down to a science—you give the camera a combination of El Greco and an asthma attack.”

Back then Candice also went through a conga line of café society suitors. Next came a live-in relationship with another Hollywood brat, Terry Melcher, whose mother is Doris Day. (In 1969 the Charles Manson gang committed the Sharon Tate murders at the very estate where she and Melcher had spent “some of the happiest moments of my life.”) Bergen—in 1964 a staunch supporter of Barry Goldwater—then moved in with archliberal producer Bert (Hearts and Minds) Schneider. Soon she was demonstrating with the American Indians at Alcatraz, with the 1972 antiwar “Women and Children’s Ring Around the Capitol” and with feminists. Bergen also worked steadily, but outside of Carnal Knowledge and The Wind and the Lion, there was a dreary succession of misses (The Adventurers, Getting Straight, Soldier Blue, T.R. Baskin, A Night Full of Rain).

Suddenly, in 1976, everything changed. The woman who coyly sent out black-bordered invitations to her 21st birthday had turned 30 and “stopped running. For years I had packed a bag and fled to some corner of the earth when the pressures of living got too much for me. I decided to change. I tried to look inside. I did not turn into a hermit, but I made a commitment to myself to have a private life and to live it with honor. I gave up going to parties to see and be seen. I learned to be alone and happy.” Bergen retreated into her photojournalism, with credits including Life, Esquire and Vogue, and began rejecting roles that perpetuated the sex-object stereotyping that had never suited her. Oliver’s Story was a mistake, but Starting Over wasn’t.

Nor, in Candice’s eyes, was Rich and Famous. “I hope that people don’t get hung up on the idea that this is a ‘woman’s movie,’ ” she says. “It’s our version of Butch and Sundance.” Bergen is particularly pleased that the film’s nude scenes belong to the male ingenues Hart Bochner and Matt Lattanzi: “Fantastic and about time,” she guffaws. “They can have my falsies, pasties and body stockings anytime.” More soberly, she adds, “In a lot of ways, it’s about the lives of almost any women. I remember that until I was 25 I didn’t have any really close women friends—I was such a snob I didn’t want to be thought of as ‘a lady who went to lunch.’ But then I realized that the deepest, most honest conversations I’ve had were always with women. They were the ones keeping me sane through my many incarnations.”

It is this newfound self-esteem, Candice feels, that has made the role of Mme Malle possible. “I have had relationships that were marriages in everything but the legalities, yet I knew I was not prepared for the commitment. Whenever I felt uncomfortable, I would pack a bag.”

Today she and Louis travel gracefully from her Central Park South duplex in Manhattan to his 18th-century château in Lagagnac and to many points in between. Recently she completed a cameo for director Richard Attenborough’s Gandhi, portraying photojournalist Margaret Bourke-White—”a role I would have killed to get.” Now, while Malle is reportedly involved in a new Belushi-Aykroyd project, Bergen is working on her memoirs of growing up in Hollywood and musing about the implications of the new gold band on her ring finger. “I didn’t get married for money or security,” she says. “I can give myself that. Christ, I used to get sick of those films where, in the end, the heroine gets married and all her problems then dissolve. Marriage is a serious step demanding discipline and, yes, I was nervous about that. But you should always do what you’re afraid of.”