Another TV movie about prostitutes? Not exactly, says Candice Bergen, who stars as the operator of a call-girl service in “Mayflower Madam,” which airs Sunday night on CBS.
“People will be expecting one thing, but they’re going to get another,” she says. “This is totally feminist. The network avoided every cheap shot--which in itself is notable and maybe even regrettable.”
It’s not a role you’d expect of the cool and elegant Bergen. But Bergen is full of surprises. Sitting primly in her publicist’s office, she holds out her hand in greeting. In her palm is an array of colorfully wrapped bubble gum.
At 41, Bergen has an impressive resume: star of nearly two dozen films, author of the autobiographical “Knock Wood” and a respected photojournalist. She is also the wife of French film director Louis Malle and, of particular importance to her at the moment, she is a mother.
“I wish I’d done it earlier,” she says about giving birth. Daughter Chloe Malle just turned 2. “I just find everything else beside the point now, frankly. I’m so focused on her. Other things are boring.”
To get herself in the mood to act again, Bergen needed a worthwhile project. It was her mother who suggested “Mayflower Madam.” “She thought playing a blue-blooded madam would be fun for me,” Bergen says. “My mother is quite enlightened.”
“Mayflower Madam” was inspired by “Mayflower Madam, the Secret Life of Sydney Biddle Barrows,” an autobiographical account of a New York socialite’s experiences as a madam. Three years ago, Barrows hit the headlines when the New York vice squad arrested her. Learning that two of her ancestors had been Pilgrims on the Mayflower, the media dubbed her the “Mayflower Madam.”
After pleading guilty to promoting prostitution, Barrows paid a $5,000 fine and then wrote a book about her experiences. The TV movie “allows Sydney to defend her position,” Bergen says. Barrows herself says the film doesn’t portray her point of view strongly enough, but Bergen maintains that “it is sympathetic to a profession that women fall into out of economic necessity and naivete. She challenged the double standard of women being prosecuted for being in a call-girl service while the male clients were not.”
“Sydney is a folk hero in New York,” Bergen says. “Some of her family were quite proud of her, while others were horrified. Her mother was taken out of the Social Register.
“She knew that what she was doing was illegal, but she had seen hundreds of escort services opening in New York. She simply applied her marketing skills to the business. She gave health benefits and encouraged the girls, many of whom were law and medical students, to do their homework.”
Before shooting started, Bergen met Barrows, who has a tiny role in the film as a woman to whom the madam is introduced. “I found her to be articulate, pleasant, intelligent, ambitious and well informed about politics,” the actress says. “She loves clothes and fashion, and she’s a very shrewd businesswoman. She told me that the commonest question she gets on her speaking tours is, ‘How can I do this? (run a call-girl agency),’ followed by ‘Would you hire me?’ ”
She can’t, of course, because she is no longer in the escort business. She makes money now just talking about it, Barrows says by phone from New York, just before setting off for speaking engagements in Kansas City, Omaha and Peoria, Ill.
“People want to hear my story, so I give lectures,” she says.
Asked to comment about CBS’ description of “Mayflower Madam” as having a “feminist theme,” she says, “It does have to do with women having a choice of what to do with their own bodies. But when I was arrested, some people told me I’d set the women’s movement back 100 years. In my view, the women’s movement was about giving women freedom of choice. Who’s to say one of those choices can’t be being a call girl?”
Barrows, 32, regrets that CBS, which she calls “the conservative broadcasting company,” “can’t take the risk of putting my point of view across. There was a great deal of squabbling and efforts made by me, Candice, the director (Lou Antonio) and Mr. (Robert) Halmi (the producer) to make the movie a little more fun, a little more real.”
In her view, prostitution is not the social evil that many people think. “All these girls are trying to do is make an honest buck. Why not let them do it in an atmosphere where they can retain their dingity, their safety and their health?”
But she understands why the network chose not to be true to the spirit of the book. “Middle America isn’t ready for a successful madam. CBS couldn’t make it look like fun. People had to be punished. There had to be retribution.”
“I think you’ll get a sense of Sydney in the film,” Bergen says. “Her book gives very few details and no sense of who she is and why she did it. Everybody’s favorite chapter was her briefing to the girls: what they should wear and how they could get through hotel lobby security. She also gave sexual and hygiene instructions, which got fairly bawdy. CBS thought they’d jump over that part. Our script is fairly sober and strait laced.”
Apparently, Bergen wouldn’t have minded a slight touch of bawdiness. “I had a great time with ‘Hollywood Wives,’ ” she says of the racy 1985 ABC miniseries in which she co-starred. “It was a completely exotic experience.
“Thank God for television! It’s a way to do interesting roles and, on occasion, say interesting things and take positions that need supporting.”
After completing “Mayflower Madam,” Bergen went on make an episode of “Trying Times,” a comedy anthology series on PBS. Her episode, “Moving Day,” airs Nov. 23 on KCET-TV Channel 28.
“It’s a wonderfully written, very funny script by Bernard Slade (author of “Same Time, Next Year”),” she says. “I play a woman who is about to move after living in the same house for 20 years. Her husband left her a year earlier, and now her kids are going off to college. Everything happens on moving day beyond any conceivable reality, and yet it’s very grounded in reality.”
After her two-year “sabbatical,” the actress says that “it’s nice to be working again. I felt very nervous and very rusty, and I wasn’t too happy about the long hours. But you can come home again. I found myself looking up at the heavens and feeling so lucky to have what I have in my life.”