ESSENTIAL TELEMOVIES: Mayflower Madam (1987)

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All but forgotten 30 years later, one of the most delicious of the 1980s scandals was that of Sidney Biddle Barrows, the old old old old money socialite who ran a high-class prostitution service.  American TV loves to knock down celebrities, but old old old old money rarely does anything newsworthy until a murder or a lunatic marriage or the exposure of a high-class prostitution service.  Biddle Barrows actually enjoyed her temporary celebrity, wrote a book about it on which the movie is based and happily appeared to promote it.

Heidi Fleiss was trash, Sydney Biddle Barrows was class from her pumps to hear pearls.

Snatching Candice Bergen, a year shy of her immortal “Murphy Brown” role, made sense.  She was second generation Hollywood royalty.  The surprise here is what I usually call the “slumming vet.”  This time, it’s Broadway’s greatest dancer, Chita Rivera, in her only TV movie role.  Ever!  Now in her mid-80s, her film and TV career is limited a few movies and some guest spots on TV, usually taking advantage of her amazing range.  But here, she plays a lawyer and has fun without having to kick up a leg.

The last third of the movie is on the preachy side.  It has to at least make a show of knowing that prostitution is technically illegal, but the piece is really about celebrity exploitation, watching the mighty fall.

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We begin, predictably, where these things always begin: the climax.  It’s 1984 and Sydney (Candice Bergen) has been told that her operation is being raided by the police.  She drives by to see her girls handcuffed, but waits to go inside until the police are gone.  That’s when she discovers how thoroughly her operation has been destroyed.

How could this have happened?  Well, we do what we always do, we flashback.  Six years ago…

It’s the Mayflower Ball, a gathering of the wealthy descendants of America’s first New England settlers.  As a roll call of Mayflower originals is called, and their descendants have to stand to receive the applause, Sydney is begging off a trip to the Caribbean.  “I have a job.  I have to work for a living,” she insists, despite, dress, hair and jewels that seem to tell a different story.

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Sydney is fired from her job either for “having an attitude” as per her boss or being too high-handed, according to a pal.  The pal then tells her she works at an escort service.  “I don’t go out on dates or anything like that, I just answer the phone,” her friend says.  Sydney is shocked, but even more shocked when the matre’d of the swanky cocktail lounge where Sydney and pal are ensconced tosses them out on their “we don’t allow unescorted women after 5:30pm” asses.  Her friend tells her it’s because he assumes something.  “Me?  A hooker!” Sydney wails.

Sydney is dragged by her friend Pamela (Victoria Loving) to an art show where she is able to pull apart the influence of a particularly ghastly painting, catching the attention of the artist’s lawyer Matt Whittington (Chris Sarandon).  They go out for a drink where Sydney unloads her job search woes, but Matt asks if she’s ever thought of starting her own business.  “You strike me as someone who could put things together, make it run,” he notes (after knowing her five minutes).

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The humiliations pile up, so Sydney decides to interview at her friend’s escort operation, for a receptionist position, thank you very much, with Eddie (Robert Silver), the slimy boss, adopting the name “Sheila Devin.”  He’s so busy, she has to answer a phone two sentences after walking in.  “Can I get in trouble doing this?” Sydney asks?  Eddie says he’s gone seven years without being busted, it’s safe.  Reluctantly, she agrees.

Things go well for her at the agency and with Matt, though proper as ever, she simply will not spend the evening with him at his place.  However, Eddie is upset one night because “Sheila” refused to set up a date between any of the girls and a “coke head” who smells badly.  “Let me tell you something,” Eddie, rage, “cock heads got no sense of time” and thus the hours and money pile up.  “It’s good for business,” he insists and “what the customer wants, the customer get,” even when they get violent with the girls.

Sydney agrees, but one of the girls gets beaten up and Sydney feels guilty as she rushes to the hospital.  The girls then come to Eddie and complain they are not being paid and Sydney, friend in tow, quits.  “What do you think if we give Eddie a run for his money?” Sydney asks her, thinking of starting her own operation, but one where the girls are treated well and fairly.  But there’s more.  “I need ladies, not girls.” This is going to be a blue blood operation.  So begins her agency, “Cache,” which “provides social companionship for a very selective clientele.”

This agency has sunny windows, tea sets and the girl are medical students, like Virginia (Caitlin Clarke), actresses and other respectable types.  “Why don’t you wear something as if your grandfather were taking you to lunch at 21,” Sydney tells a new girl.  Ah, well, when you put it like that, who wouldn’t be in?

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Sydney’s girls do not have to do anything they don’t want to do, nothing that makes them uncomfortable, and they still get paid.  Even better, they get 60% of the price.  Oh, and she buys them pretty lacy satin unmentionables.  Again, who wouldn’t be in?  Her social class helps, such as when she tells a complaining girl that “ladies always wear stockings, even in the summer.”  Spoken like a true Waldorf deb.  And they look like them too:

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Virginia is nervous about her first date, but one of the brassier dames tells her the definition of a cal girl: “someone who hates poverty more than she hates sin.”  If only I had that bumper sticker for my Rolls Royce.

Matt, who know nothing of Sydney’s business, gets taken on a trip to New Jersey to see Granny Sydney’s cottage, aka the family mansion.  But, Sydney can only get as far as the gate and mournfully tells Matt that “other kids wanted bike and dolls.  All I ever wanted was this.”  I think we’re supposed to understand this drives Sydney, but it’s an old money dream, so we are allowed to laugh over its absurdity.

Here is the NYC Biddle mansion in 2012, when it was looking for a $48 million buyer:3468052-1_l-0

Eddie calls “Sheila” to rage about her stealing his clients while the desk manager at the semi-swanky building where “Cache” is located begins to put the pieces together when the same girls keep coming in and out.  And Sydney spills the beans to her friend Pamela.  “So there’s no sex involved?” Pamela asks, shocked.  “Oh, Pamela, show me a business where there’s no sex involved,” Sydney retorts with Bergen’s unmistakable sarcastic scowl.

Sydney shows up for work one morning to find spray paint on the sidewalk that say ” to whorehouse” (in cursive) and points to the door.  The elevator says “brothel in 5C.”  The building’s owner accosts her, but her old money charm win the argument, as she calmly coos, “do I look like the kind of person…” and of course she doesn’t.  Sydney then calls Eddie and reads him the understated clenched-jaw riot act threatening routine.

Let’s pause and look at some real-life images of the Mayflower Ball.  Would you like that?  Of course you would:

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Nifty, right?

Back in the movie, we’re at yet another Mayflower Ball, where Matt angrily announces a huge deal is law firm has completed.  Sydney is thrilled, but shocked he hadn’t told her.  “You’re never home,” he says.  “Why didn’t you leave a message on my machine?” “It wasn’t your machine I wanted,” he snorts.  He’s frustrated that Sydney cannot find a night for them to be together, but he thinks there is another man.  He demands to see her apartment for the first time ever, she refuses and then he issue an ultimatum: if she cannot see him upon his return from a few weeks away on business, it’s over.

Enter the fuzz.  Frank Gullet (Jim Antonio) arrives to investigate a complain from the building’s owner.  They can’t prove anything, but they are disturbed by what they know is going on in 5C.

So, with Sydney busier than ever, she buy an apartment (and decorates it, in the span of a week) so she doesn’t have to live at the “office” and upon Matt’s return, tells him the truth.  “It’s the oldest profession and I think it ought to be legalized,” she argues, much to his horror (in 1987, that view was not as common as it is 30 years later).  “Now I’m not sure who it was I was missing,” Matt says when Sydney starts getting all lovey dovey and wants to make up for their time apart.  But, she wins him over.

Dashing out for a swanky evening on the town with Matt, Sydney is stopped by her receptionist, who thinks a call she just received from a man asking strange questions is worrying.  Sydney is momentarily halted, but feels it must be nothing.

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It’s the 80s, TV wasn’t subtle, Sydney should start worrying!

And here we go…

But a night at the opera, with Pamela, beckons and Matt runs into a colleague.  Introducing him to Sydney, the latter recognized both his name and his voice, because about two scenes ago, that voice was telling her how lovely her own voice was and how safe and wonderful it made him feel.  Even better, his date for the evening is introduced as a friend of his daughter’s, but she’s really Sydney’s longtime girl Virginia.

“You know, I have the distinct feeling we’ve met somewhere…I don’t mean that I’ve seen you, I’m sure I would have recognized you if we had.  No, it’s your voice.  Are you sure you aren’t in radio broadcasting?  Call me Neville.  You have the most distinctive mellifluous voice.  I could swear that I…” he gurgles until realizing why he knows the voice and then dashes off to his seat with a twinkle in his eye.

The cops have been staking out Sydney’s place for weeks, but nothing illegal seems to be happening.

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(Lou Antonio, in a still from another film)

Matt has heard from the client, asking all sorts of questions, which made him uncomfortable.  He tells Sydney, “t got sticky, I didn’t like it.”  That’s a line for sure no one who uses Cache ever spoke.  Tee hee.

He storm out and doesn’t even notice the subpoena attached to the door.

“My client is a model citizen…” Oh, that voice, that gravely, sexy voice, could only belong to one person.  Enter Chita Rivera, as Sydney’s lawyer Risa Dickson, representing her at an eviction hearing, about to wake up a movie that had been getting a bit sleepy.

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On the surface, this is just housing court.  As Risa reminds the opposing counsel, upon hinting at what is going on in 5C, this is not criminal court.  But, both Sydney and Risa are puzzled at the man watching, talking to the oily desk clerk (the building owner’s son-in-law, who has been gunning to expose the operation).  They don’t know yet he’s the policeman who has been watching her.  Risa cannily gets his name exposed for the record.

Sydney is convinced all is fine, but when Matt proposes to her, it comes with the stipulation that she get out of the racket.  She refuses, saying she’s stockpiling money in order to open a clothing line.  “I know what I’m doing!” she insists.  “Don’t tell me you’re gonna kiss me off because you would rather spend the night sending your girl out to sleep with men old enough to be there fathers!” Matt hisses in a packed restaurant.  Angry (rightfully so), Sydney storms out, announcing, “I just don’t think I’m partner material,” a pun on the announcement that Matt is going to make partner and thus have enough money for both of them.

When Pamela mentions his name at lunch later on, Sydney loses it. “God, sometimes, it really makes me wonder.  Everyone else seems to know so much better as to how I should run my life.  Is it possible that all of you are just a little bit threatened by the fact that I can make it on my own terms without taking handouts from a man or dipping into a trust fund?”  “I won’t take that personally,” Pamela drawls.  “Maybe you should,” Sydney replies.

With 20 or so minutes left in the movie, it’s hardly time to start bringing in the feminist angle.  Cliches coming from Sydney Biddle Barrows feel shoehorned.  This isn’t a story about a crusader for women’s rights or prostitution, it’s the story of a boldface name who ran a blueface business, let’s not make her the poster girl for too much more.

Sydney finally notices the stakeout of the Cache building, now that she knows the man in the car is the police.

The gang gathers for a happy day in the park.  Virginia has gotten a job out of state and one of the girls has gotten an off-Broadway role.  Sydney goes over the rules with the new girls, right there outside in the middle of Central Park.

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Hilary (Leslie Hardy), who has been tiring of the life, is sent on a call, but the john is actually a cop with a wire, as the police have been bugging Cache phones for a while.  She does her best to follow the rules, never discuss money and all the rest.

At 1am, just as Virginia is set to leave for Chicago, the police come bursting through the doors and arrest all of the girls.  This is where we started, with Sydney returning to the office, but instead going around the corner when she sees the arrest.

“Okay, let’s do it,” Risa tells Sydney when they arrive at the courthouse so Sydney can turn herself in.

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Sydney is taken to prison and is front page news, dubbed “The Mayflower Madam.”

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Virginia is back because her Chicago job fired her.  Sydney intends to take the case to trial, but not for herself, but to “vindicate” the girls so they are not considered common hooker.  Virginia howls, “for God’s sake, wake up!  You sent me out to sleep with me for money, most of them married men.  You’re gonna have an awfully hard time convincing anybody that’s a principle worth fighting for.”  She’s got a point there.

Risa tries to get prosecution to drop the case, asking how he thinks he can win it.  He intends to put every girl on the stand.  “We’ll call all the clients.  All 3000,” she boasts.  “That could be messy.  You would run careers, the family live of those powerful men,” he replies.  But, the cops have spoken to the press saying the men are blameless, unlike the girls, who are “selling themselves like pork chops.”  The assistant DA says, “I don’t make the laws, but I have to enforce them.  I don’t have a choice.”  “Neither do I,” Risa snaps, adding, “if you take Sydney Biddle Barrows down, you take all of those men down with her, beginning with the 340 New York lawyer who patronized her service.”  Ace!

The charges will be reduced to a misdemeanor and a fine if Sydney pleads guilty.  Sydney is still intent on defending her girls.  “I feel like I betrayed them,” she whines.  “Let it go, Sydney.  Put it in the past.  Get on with your life” is Risa’s advice.

Sydney walks by The Plaza, another Mayflower Ball starting, but she has no intention of going in.  Pamela stops to see her, congratulating Sydney on not going to prison.  Sydney congratulates Pamela on her upcoming wedding.  “I’d like to invite you, but Stuart’s parents…” she starts to say, but Sydney has gotten used to being ostracized.  “I don’t do anything wrong, Pamela,” Sydney defiantly claims.  “You really don’t think so?” Pamela asks, both knowing their friendship is over as well.

Sydney disappears into the darkness of Manhattan.

Categories: Essential Telemovies

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