I love Candice Bergen. LOVE her. Murphy Brown, Sex and the City, the greatest Will and Grace cameo ever. Anytime anyone bitches about a celeb’s kid getting ahead for no good reason, I point to the Emmy-winning actress. Okay, so maybe she did get started as a model and actress because her daddy was a big star (comedian, shady ventriloquist Edgar Bergen) but she stayed in the business because she’s funny and interesting and doesn’t give a damn.
Bergen is now reporting that in 2006 she suffered a stroke. At the time she made no public statement. At the time there was no news coverage. She simply took two weeks off from her gig at Boston Legal and that was that. Now 65, the actress who inexplicably became the obsession of the Vice President of the United States for playing a single, unwed mother still suffers memory loss. She also recently broke her pelvis.
Oscar-winner Kathy Bates also recently came clean about a past illness. Bates recently battled ovarian cancer, according to ABC News (I say “according to ABC News” because Bates made her reveal to Anderson Cooper on his daytime talker…and who’s watching???). And just last week, InStyle magazine readers learned that Modern Family break-out star Sofia Vergara was diagnosed with thyroid cancer twelve years ago.
So, why all the secrecy? Especially in this day and age of overshare. I promise you that, thanks to Facebook, I know the bathroom habits of approximately 62% of toddlers in North America.
I can definitely see the argument for keeping your private life (and your health), well, private. It’s really nobody’s damned business if you’re sick or well. And I can certainly appreciate that, while you’re fighting for your life you don’t also want to spend energy explaining your fight to everyone. It sort of becomes about everyone but you, right? How your illness makes them feel. How they had a cousin who had that same thing. And I can only imagine the importance of putting on a brave face for professional actors, whose livelihood depends on being perceived as capable, energetic…and, oh, around next week.
But the fact that the three latest revelations come from women intrigued me. Especially considering that two of the performers in question are getting along in years and therefore already fighting to remain visible in an industry that prizes youth and further considering that one of them has constantly had to duck slings and arrows about her body.
And even Vergara, as famous for being smoking hot as she is for being wickedly funny, had her own battles to fight: in America we haven’t always been great at consistently employing actresses from backgrounds more diverse than “not blonde.”
It’s not unheard of, of course, for male celebrities to hide illness. Michael J. Fox is probably the best example, but there was also Dudley Moore. Hell, there was Franklin Delano Roosevelt. And they typically come out when they can no longer hide it or when they sense there is a public good to be served. Female celebs are likely similarly driven to come out, either to scoop the story or raise awareness. But I can’t shake the feeling that there is something more. That for women in an industry that prizes youth and beauty, the cost is much greater to come out and acknowledge their bodies as out of their control.
Even when a woman is no longer young, when they have fame, money, and means, there is always the possibility for transformation. We know that, out of the blue, any female celeb of any age can appear on a magazine cover, having discovered hormone therapy, a chemical peel, Buddhism, or pilates. Any famous actress–so studios seem to think–can transform herself on the outside, can earn some extra credit with gossip rags. I guess what I’m saying is Hollywod seems to think that any actress’ stock can go way, way up when they discover the right diet, stylist, or schtick. And it just isn’t that way for men in Hollywood. Want proof? Look at all the articles about Bergen’s stroke; count the number of times people mention her face and how she hasn’t had plastic surgery. I remember watching Dudley Moore explain PSP, the degenerative neurological disease that eventually claimed his life. I don’t remember anyone pointing out his crow’s feet.
A man in Hollywood who reveals a private struggle with his health will have us observing the right things: how his outlook has shifted, how the revelation explains some unique ticks, how he is working to raise awareness or funds. A woman in Hollywood revealing a private struggle has us commenting on how good or bad she looks and wondering if she’ll look different soon. Tell me that Vergara wouldn’t have had trouble getting work back in 2000 if agents had been worried steroids used during her cancer treatment were going to make her puffy.
And just think about the last time you saw a very aged, possibly ill actress make an adorable-if-awkward speech at an awards show? You can’t? That’s because it does happen so often. We’re okay hearing from poor old Kirk Douglas (also a stroke victim). We see dignity in his struggle. We see a distinguished older man. When we see Lauren Bacall, we cluck our tongues about how pretty she used to be. Why do you think there are so many female Hollywood legends we never see in public (Doris Day and Brigitte Bardot just to name two)? Because they are old or ill and that makes us too sad to look at them. And they know it.
I think that we treat female celebs who are struggling with poor physical health (I can’t even bring myself to break down how we behave if they’re mentally ill) the same way we do new mothers. “Oh, you poor thing. You must be exhausted with a new baby at home!” We think we’re calling out their supreme maternal sacrifice but really we’re just telling them they look tired and gross…and that we hope they look better real soon.
So, thanks for sharing, Candice. And keep getting well but don’t change a thing. Make Hollywood change for you.