Tuesday, September 23, 2014

Telling the Truth about Polly Bergen and the Queen of the Nile

I’ll always associate Polly Bergen with one of my favorite TV game shows from the late 1950s, To Tell the Truth. Bergen was one of four celebrity panelists trying to guess which of three contestants was being truthful about some unusual accomplishment. Other regulars, like Peggy Cass, specialized in goofiness, but Bergen stood out as a savvy cosmopolitan. Always impeccably dressed and coiffed, she seemed smart as well as pretty.

It was not until her recent death at age 84 that I learned about Bergen’s political side. She was a lifelong liberal, dedicated to women’s rights and to the prospect of electing women to high office. In 2008, she was a staunch supporter of Hillary Clinton to top the Democratic presidential ticket. Which makes it highly appropriate that, back in 1964, she herself played the nation’s first female head of state. But I suspect she didn’t exactly consider this a giant leap for womankind. The movie was a treacly confection called Kisses for My President. Far less plot attention was paid to Bergen’s confident, competent President Leslie McCloud than to Fred MacMurray’s fish-out-of-water First Gentleman, whose discomfort with garden teas and a frilly White House boudoir was intended as a source of high comedy. MacMurray, as Thad McCloud,  had allowed his wife to run for president because he didn’t think she would win. Just when their marital situation seemed hopeless, Leslie stepped forward to resign her post, for the sake of their unborn baby. This “surprise” pregnancy could have been predicted by any moviegoer over the age of seven.  Here’s the film’s final dialogue exchange-- He: “It took 40 million women to get you into the White House . . .”  She (lovingly): “And just one man to get me out.” 

These days, of course, we’ve got a serious female presidential contender. And, on our television screens, women in high places abound. On Commander-in-Chief (2005-2006), Bergen herself played the mother of a U.S. president played by Geena Davis. Currently, Julia Louis-Dreyfus holds the second highest office in the land on the comedy hit, Veep. The brand-new Madam Secretary features Téa Leoni as Secretary of  State. Another newbie is a dramatic series called State of Affairs in which President Alfre Woodard combines the most obvious characteristics of Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama, thus doubly demonstrating that political correctness is alive and well.

All of the above, oddly enough, make me think of a splendid biography I recently read. It’s Cleopatra: A Life, by Stacy Schiff, who like me is an active member of the Biographers International Organization. Schiff notes, at the outset, that the Cleopatra most of us have in our heads “seems the joint creation of Roman propagandists and Hollywood directors.” We think of her, in other words, as an untamed vixen, seducing Roman generals for fun and profit, then (if we’re in a Shakespearean mood) throwing away her kingdom and her life for love.

Schiff’s Cleopatra, though, is a far different creature, less Elizabeth  Taylor than Indira Gandhi or (yes) Hillary Clinton. She’s not particularly gorgeous, but she’s indisputably brilliant. With her solid classical education and her ability to speak nine languages, she puts the women of Rome to shame. A master of statecraft and also stagecraft, she uses banquets, parades, and other opulent ceremonies strategically, as a way to advance the cause of her nation. Schiff follows her to the grave, then ends with the death of her son Ptolemy in Rome at the hands of Caligula, “an appropriate end to a dynasty steeped, from the start, in blazing, supersaturated color.”

I can’t wait for the movie.

(October 2, 2014--   This just in: I've read that Ang Lee is in fact working toward a retelling of Cleopatra's story, with none other than Angelina Jolie in the title role.)


  1. I wonder if it will be four hours long and nearly bankrupt its studio?


    I worked with Polly Bergen on a little-seen feature about the Civil Rights struggle - Once Upon a Time...When We were Colored. It was based on Clifton Taulbert's book and directed by WKRP actor Tim Reid. The movie covers a span of time from the mid 1940's through the early 1960's - Ms. Bergen played Miss Maybry, a good hearted Southern woman who gives books to the narrator in his youth and encourages him in his development. She was only on set with us a few days - but she was a marvelous presence - professional, prepared, and pleasant. I was very sorry to hear of her passing. RIP to a terrific performer - and a very nice lady.

  2. I'm very glad to hear that Polly Bergen was a total pro, Mr. C. I know that she is in fact a Southern lady by birth (in Knoxville, Tennessee), and I'm pleased to learn that she is good-hearted too. What was Tim Reid like? I always got the impression he was a smart and interesting guy.

  3. While I adored his wife - Daphne Maxwell Reid - I didn't find Mr. Reid particularly warm or pleasant. However, he was directing a period movie on a limited budget with something like 84 speaking roles - so he was beyond busy and trying to stay on schedule - being aloof or a little testy is understandable. I have never managed to see the movie - but it got good reviews - including Roger Ebert's - so the end results also help to justify a little negativity on set.

  4. I actually think I interviewed Tim Reid by phone once. Yes, in the circumstances you describe he was certainly entitled to be a bit testy.