Polly Bergen movies: 'First woman U.S. president' dead at 84
Emmy Award-winning actress Polly Bergen – whose movie and television roles ranged from the first woman U.S. president in the 1964 comedy Kisses for My President to Felicity Huffman's mother in Desperate Housewives – died of “natural causes” on Sept. 20, '14, at her home in Southbury, Connecticut. The 84-year-old Bergen, a heavy smoker for five decades, had been suffering from emphysema and other ailments since the 1990s.
Never a top movie star, Bergen was a popular television personality, guesting in dozens of TV series and taking part as a panelist in shows such as The Hollywood Squares and To Tell the Truth (both in the mid-'50s and in the early '80s). At age 27, she won an Emmy for her performance in the Playhouse 90 presentation of “The Helen Morgan Story.” More recently, Bergen was featured in the television hit series The Sopranos, playing the former mistress of both Tony Soprano's father and John F. Kennedy.
The epitome of Hollywood poise and elegance, she authored a trio of self-help books and in the mid-'60s launched her own brand of “oil of the turtle”-based cosmetics. Bergen was also a politically active Democrat, one whose name was found in the extended version of the Richard Nixon Administration's notorious “Enemies List.”
For nearly two decades, she was married to Hollywood superagent and sometime producer Freddie Fields.
Poor, Southern Baptist beginnings
“Most people think I was born in a rich Long Island family,” Polly Bergen told The Washington Post in 1988. In reality, she was born Nellie Paulina Burgin on July 14, 1930, to an impoverished family in Knoxville, Tennessee. Her father was an illiterate construction worker while her mother got only as far as the third grade. The family had to keep on moving to wherever work was available during the Great Depression.
“We were a Southern Baptist family,” Bergen told the Post, “very poor, from time to time on welfare. My father spent a lot of time flat on his back with a broken back. But my father always believed that you worked for a living, so I worked from the time that I was a kid. I took care of the house and I did all the cooking and washing and cleaning.”
She also did quite a bit of singing. Inspired by show-biz success stories like those of child stars Shirley Temple and Deanna Durbin, Paulina Burgin, nicknamed Polly, began singing at home, hoping to be discovered by a producer passing by – just like Durbin in one of her movies.
In her mid-teens, while living in Richmond, Indiana, Burgin sang with her father on the radio. “Everybody thought I was black and thought I was 25. I was 15,” she told the Hartford Courant's Susan Dunne in 2013. “I thought Sarah Vaughan was the best singer in the business. I learned to sing listening to Sarah Vaughan records.”
Polly Burgin's show business career, however, would kick off only after her parents settled in California, where she sang with a local band. According to the IMDb, she can be heard (uncredited) singing on the radio in Mark Robson's boxing drama Champion (1949), starring Kirk Douglas, and in Fred Zinnemann's psychological drama The Men (1950), Marlon Brando's film debut.
Polly Bergen movies: Paramount duds, 'disgusting' Jerry Lewis
“I was fanatically ambitious,” Polly Bergen would confess to the New York Times' James Gavin in 2001. “All I ever wanted to be was a star. I didn't want to be a singer. I didn't want to be an actress. I wanted to be a star.”
Curiously, although a beautiful, talented, and, by her own account, quite determined actress – one who was married to a top Hollywood agent for nearly two decades – Bergen never quite became a major Hollywood star.
As found on the IMDb, she landed her first credited screen role – for the first and only time as Polly Burgin – in Monogram's grade-Z 1949 musical Western Across the Rio Grande, playing a saloon singer. In 1950, the rebaptized Polly Bergen was given a Paramount contract, courtesy of legendary producer Hal B. Wallis (Sergeant York, Casablanca, The Strange Love of Martha Ivers), who had moved from Warner Bros. to Paramount in the mid-'40s.
Despite Wallis' patronage, Bergen found herself stuck in thankless roles, supporting the likes of Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis in the comedies At War with the Army (1950) and That's My Boy (1951), and Edmond O'Brien and Dean Jagger in Byron Haskin's B Western Warpath (1951). Regarding her relatively brief appearance in At War with the Army, Los Angeles Times reviewer Philip K. Scheuer wrote: “Miss Bergen looks like a nice person, and her voice is pretty good, but she doesn't know how to face a camera. Give her time. She's new.”
Paramount was in no hurry. The best the studio – and Hal B. Wallis – managed to do for Bergen was to cast her as the leading lady in one more Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis production, the formulaic 1952 musical comedy The Stooge, directed by Norman Taurog.
Bergen was surely anything but thrilled at once again being relegated to a decorative role in a Martin and Lewis flick – and not only because her career had stalled. “Jerry Lewis is a disgusting man,” she would affirm to the Hartford Courant. “Every day I worked with him, he made me cry.”
Brief MGM stint
Years later, Polly Bergen claimed to have walked out on her Paramount contract, though some sources state the studio itself let her go. Either way, she landed another one at Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer in 1953. At the time no longer the “More Stars Than There Are in Heaven” studio of previous decades – when Bergen might have had a real shot at movie stardom – MGM was just as unable as Paramount to boost the career of their new contract player.
The year she arrived at the studio, Bergen was relegated to leading-lady roles in B or near-B fare such as:
- Joseph H. Lewis' Cry of the Hunted, as a swamp woman who comes between lawman Barry Sullivan and fugitive Vittorio Gassman.
- Richard Fleischer's Arena, playing opposite Gig Young and Jean Hagen in what is supposed to be the first Western filmed in 3D.
- John Sturges' romantic comedy Fast Company, as Howard Keel's love interest.
Polly Bergen's one important MGM production was another 1953 release, John Sturges' well-made Western Escape from Fort Bravo. But her role was a relatively minor one, supporting William Holden and the film's actual female star, Eleanor Parker.
By 1954, Bergen was no longer making movies for the Culver City studio.
'Two sexy women' in Las Vegas
After the first phase of her movie career came to an abrupt halt in the mid-'50s, Polly Bergen switched her focus to television (more on that in the follow-up article; see link further below). She also sang in nightclubs and at one point was a star attraction in Las Vegas. “Me and Lena Horne were the two highest-paid and the two biggest female draws because we were the two sexy women,” she would explain to the Hartford Courant.
Making things more lively in the booming desert town, Bergen had “one of my favorite mobsters” and his “beautiful, beautiful” girlfriend, Ug, as her mentors. “They made sure that all of my money went straight home to my mother and father so I did not gamble it. … There was nobody in the world who knew good from bad better than they did.”
More Polly Bergen movies: Second phase
Three years after turning down Gregory Peck's offer to be his co-star in Stanley Kramer's post-doomsday drama On the Beach (1959) – Peck had been impressed by her performance in “The Helen Morgan Story,” but she had recently adopted a child (Ava Gardner eventually landed the role) – Polly Bergen finally returned to the big screen in 1962, with none other than Gregory Peck as one of her co-stars.
For a brief period, she would be given bigger and meatier parts.
- In J. Lee Thompson's thriller Cape Fear (1962), she is Peck's wife, terrorized by psycho Robert Mitchum, who in one scene cracks raw eggs on her and proceeds to smear them all over her breasts. Regarding her screen husband, she would recall, “He was very reserved, but he was just a love.”
- In Michael Gordon's Move Over Darling (1963), Bergen is the beautiful woman who marries “widower” James Garner – whose dead wife Doris Day inconveniently turns out to be very much alive. Now, which wife will the widower-turned-bigamist choose?
- And in Hall Bartlett's drama The Caretakers (1963), Bergen is a mental patient at a hospital where progressive doctor Robert Stack butts heads with traditionalist nurse administrator Joan Crawford.
Initially, Bergen had been “violently opposed” to getting cast in Move Over Darling because hers was the second female lead; at director Gordon's insistence she eventually relented. It was a felicitous decision. “I arrived on that set and I fell in love with Doris Day within three minutes. … She was just heaven. We had the best time working together.”
For her efforts in The Caretakers – she goes totally berserk in one scene – Polly Bergen was nominated for a Best Actress - Drama Golden Globe (back then a minor accolade) along with seven other actresses. She lost the award to eventual Best Actress Oscar nominee Leslie Caron for Bryan Forbes' British-made The L-Shaped Room.
First woman U.S. president
Polly Bergen's final role during that second phase of her film career was that of the first woman U.S. president in Curtis Bernhardt's irritatingly reactionary comedy Kisses for My President (1964). As the newly elected Commander-in-Chief Leslie McCloud (a role Warner Bros. studio head Jack Warner had intended for Maureen O'Hara), Bergen looks elegant, beautiful, and intelligent. For Bernhardt, that wasn't enough.
The director, who made a career expertly handling female-centered melodramas (e.g., Joan Crawford in Possessed, Jane Wyman in The Blue Veil, Rita Hayworth in Miss Sadie Thompson), would remark that Bergen's “chicness is quite convincing and makes her look like a president, even if she doesn't know how to act like one.”
As for the movie itself, it lacked both chicness and wit. Following a series of overlong, unfunny, cringingly sexist sequences, most of them featuring emasculated First Gentleman Fred MacMurray, Bergen's president, ever the dutiful American wife and mother, chooses to resign after becoming pregnant.
Despite its “first woman U.S. president” gimmick – and that's all it is – Kisses for My President was a curious career choice for a liberal-minded actress who would become an ardent supporter of the Equal Rights Amendment. A box office failure, this dismal comedy ended Curtis Bernhardt's film career and all but ended Bergen's as well.
Sporadic movies in recent decades
Unlike another minor '50s actress, Anne Bancroft, whose return to Hollywood in the early '60s led to a prestigious, decades-long film career, Polly Bergen's big-screen comeback fizzled after Kisses for My President.
After a three-year hiatus, she could be spotted as one of the big names featured in “technical adviser” cameos, alongside Lucille Ball, Jack Benny, Jayne Mansfield, Jeffrey Hunter, etc., in Gene Kelly's comedy of mores A Guide to the Married Man, starring Walter Matthau and Inger Stevens. After that, Bergen would remain away from the big screen for two decades, returning in a small role in Susan Seidelman's Making Mr. Right (1987), starring John Malkovich.
From then on, Bergen would be featured in only a handful of movies, mostly minor fare. Among these were:
- Micki Dickoff's short Mother, Mother (1989), featuring fellow 1950s veteran Piper Laurie.
- David Price's spoof Dr. Jekyll and Ms. Hyde (1995), supporting Tim Daly and Sean Young.
- Charles Busch's coming-of-age drama A Very Serious Person (2006), with Bergen as a cranky, dying old woman.
Of this bunch, the best-remembered title is John Waters' teen musical Cry-Baby (1990), in which Bergen plays the high-society grandmother of Johnny Depp's love interest (Amy Locane). “I don't like that movie,” she would admit to the Hartford Courant. “I'm a big fan of John Waters, but I am not a big fan of John Waters' films.”
According to the IMDb, Polly Bergen bade farewell to the movies by playing another grandmother in Brian Dannelly's comedy-drama Struck by Lightning (2012), featuring Glee's Chris Colfer (who also penned the screenplay), Rebel Wilson, and Allison Janney.
“Polly Bergen Movies: 'First American Woman President'” follow-up post: “Actress Polly Bergen on Richard Nixon 'Enemies List.'”
Robert Mitchum in 'Cape Fear'
 Regarding Robert Mitchum, Polly Bergen would tell the Hartford Courant:
He was a kerplunk! He was open and loving and funny. The very first scene we did was the rape scene. … The door that was supposed to be semi-shut had accidentally been completely closed and clicked. He used my body to physically open that door. You can imagine the kind of force. By then I was starting to sob. I was really in pain. He just kept right on going and I kept right on going because I didn't know anything anyway. We arrived at the end of the scene and he completely fell apart. He grabbed me put his arms around me and said 'I'm sorry, I'm so sorry I hurt you, I didn't mean to hurt you.' And we were friends for life.
In Martin Scorsese's 1991 remake, Jessica Lange plays the wife, Nick Nolte the husband, and Best Actor Oscar nominee Robert De Niro the psycho.
Both Robert Mitchum and Gregory Peck make cameo appearances in the film, but not Polly Bergen.
'Move Over, Darling'
 In 1955, Michael Gordon had directed Bergen in Champagne Complex on Broadway; John Dall and Donald Cook co-starred.
Move Over Darling was 20th Century Fox's second attempt at remaking Garson Kanin's 1940 RKO comedy My Favorite Wife, itself inspired by Alfred Lord Tennyson's poem Enoch Arden, with the genders reversed.
Production on Something's Got to Give was shut down in 1962 after Marilyn Monroe was fired from the film directed by George Cukor; Dean Martin and Cyd Charisse (in the role eventually played by Polly Bergen) were Monroe's co-stars.
Unless otherwise noted, Polly Bergen quotes via The Guardian, Susan Dunne's interview for the Hartford Courant.
Clip of Fred MacMurray and first female U.S. president Polly Bergen in Kisses for My President: Warner Bros.
Robert Mitchum and Polly Bergen Cape Fear image: Universal Pictures, via the Hartford Courant.
Polly Bergen Kisses for My President image: Warner Bros.