Barbara Hershey on Beaches, Woody Allen and breastfeeding on TV: ‘I was an innocent’

Now 73, the star of Hannah and Her Sisters shines in Jason Blum’s new horror. She talks about why audiences are hungry for mature movies, and her unhappiness at becoming an accidental poster girl for cosmetic surgery

In 1973, Barbara Hershey – then known as Barbara Seagull, for reasons we’ll get into shortly – went on the popular US talkshow The Dick Cavett Show and torpedoed her career. She was on alongside her then partner, the actor David Carradine, but when Hershey/Seagull walked out on stage, she could hear their eight-month-old baby crying off-camera. So she ran off and returned with the little boy, named Free. Unfortunately, Free continued to fret. So Hershey/Seagull breastfed her baby live on air. Cavett was stunned and so, clearly, were the producers, who cut to commercials.

“Did you breastfeed the baby earlier or was that my imagination?” Cavett asked when they returned, Free now fed. “I did it,” Hershey, then 25, replied, entirely unabashed.

“I’ve seen it several times in my life. I think I’ve learned now to be cool about it, but it does bother me a bit. Does it bother you?” he asks Carradine, who shrugs noncommittally. “Well, we presented the censor with a unique problem that will keep him up for days,” Cavett concludes.

And not just the censor. After the show was aired, Hershey was widely criticised for breastfeeding on TV, and this was seen as final proof of her unreliable hippy wackiness, even more so than her decision to change her name to Seagull after a seagull was killed during the making of a film. Cavett was clearly far less weirded out by that revelation than he was by breastfeeding.

Watching this clip now, I tell Hershey, I couldn’t help but delight in how gloriously badass she was. “Oh that makes me feel good!” she hoots. “I wish that I could say I [breastfed on TV] for some political or badass reason, but I was an innocent. I knew what my son needed, so I just gave it to him.”

Hershey has been acting since the mid 1960s, but her career was undeniably hampered by the public and media scepticism of her in the 70s, and the assumption that she was merely Carradine’s dippy girlfriend. It wasn’t until the 80s, after she had broken up with Carradine (and dropped Seagull) that things really took off for her. Does she resent the sexism of the 70s, when she was frequently dismissed as some flaky airhead?

“I’m not resentful at all, because the reactions were honest and my reactions were honest. But when you’ve been acting for 50 years, you do a lot of growing up publicly, and a lot of that is misinterpreted, so that’s difficult. I think I was going through what a lot of young people were going through in that period. I just happened to do it in public,” she says.

Hershey, 73, is in Los Angeles, talking to me by video chat, and even at this distance you can still see the same grace and self-possession that she had when facing down Cavett’s disapproval, and when she played the wealthy Hilary Whitney in 1988’s classic Beaches, and as the mysterious Madame Serena in Jane Campion’s 1996 film The Portrait of a Lady, for which Hershey got an Oscar nomination. She has the perfect posture of former dance teacher, which is exactly what she plays in her new film, The Manor, the latest horror movie from Jason Blum’s Welcome to the Blumhouse series for Amazon.

Hershey in The Manor, part of the Welcome to the Blumhouse series.
Hershey in The Manor, part of the Welcome to the Blumhouse series. Photograph: Kevin Estrada/Amazon Content Services LLC

The film has a great premise: what if the older people who say people are trying to kill them in their assisted living centre aren’t suffering from dementia but telling the truth? Hershey plays Judith, a spunky grandmother, who is ignored by her daughter and treated like a naughty toddler by the staff of the centre. Even her adored grandson thinks she’s losing her mind when she begs him to get her out before she is murdered. The film clearly wants to do for older people what Get Out did for people of colour, showing how they are ill-treated by wider society and literalising their worst fears, and it does this pretty well in the first half, but goes utterly bananas in the second (Hershey says the ending is “provocative, and I’m all for it”). I ask if part of the appeal of the film was how it overturns stereotypes about older people.

“Yes. I believe in age but I don’t believe in numbers. I’m 73 – this is the truth!” she says. I tell her she looks about half that, which is true, but she waves the comment away. But they must have aged her in the movie because she looks about twice as old in it, I say. “Um, I yellowed my teeth, and that was the only ageing we did. I think it was the lighting,” she says.

Hershey may not believe in age but, sadly, others do, and it is she says, “definitely” harder for an female actor to find good roles the older she gets. “There are a few actresses who seem to get all of them and the rest of us are scrabbling. I hope if audiences like this film, it will encourage film-makers to see that we’re not going to repel audiences because we’re older. We can be more interesting because we’re older.”

Sexism and sneering at women was, of course, not just confined to the 70s. Hershey talks about how one of her favourite things about the film is the close relationship between Judith and her grandson, Josh (Nicholas Alexander). “It’s not a relationship between an older person and a younger person, it’s a relationship between two people who are crazy about each other, and I love that,” she says. It’s hard not to hear in this a reference to the attention she got when in a relationship, first, with the older Carradine in the 70s, and later, with Lost’s Naveen Andrews, 21 years younger than her. They were together from 1999 to 2009. Hershey describes herself as a private person, so I ask how she found the spotlight on her love life. “It’s difficult. I accept it, because what else can you do? But I don’t encourage it,” she says.

In one scene in The Manor, some of the residents of the home snicker at an older woman who has had plastic surgery, and Hershey’s character admonishes them gently, saying: “I understand people’s choices.” It’s impossible not to see this as a nod to the criticism Hershey got in the 80s when it was alleged she’d had collagen injected into her lips. Did she want to address that in the movie?

“Well, what was said about me was really silly. What I did was for a role, and it was a temporary thing. I didn’t do surgery. I wish I hadn’t done it now because I didn’t want to attract attention in that way and I became the poster child of plastic surgery and it wasn’t fair, it wasn’t what I was about or what I had done. Look at my face! I haven’t altered it,” she says.

I tell her that, given The Manor is about a protagonist who begins to doubt her own sanity, and is a former dancer, I imagined that she was playing the similarly visionary Nina (Natalie Portman) from 2010’s Black Swan, in which Hershey played Portman’s mother, but now as a grandmother.

With Natalie Portman in Black Swan.
With Natalie Portman in Black Swan. Photograph: c FoxSearch/Everett/Rex Featur

“Oh my God! Natalie! What an ending for that character! Well, in Black Swan, it’s not clear if Nina dies or not in the last scene. I always chose that she died there,” says Hershey, definitively ending a decade of fan speculation.

Hershey was born and raised in Hollywood, the daughter of a second-generation Jewish immigrant and midwestern Presbyterian. From an early age, she wanted to act and I ask why.

“The truth is repression. I had a repressed childhood. I wasn’t allowed to say anything negative, so I would go out in the back yard and act out the wicked witch and there was this release and freedom. I could be anybody and say anything and I was safe and free and happy. Most creative people I know had conflicted childhoods, which I think drives them to need to express something. I don’t think talent’s very rare, I think the need to express something is,” she says.

Her brief switch to Seagull in the 70s was not the first time she changed her name: her original surname was Herzstein, but her (Jewish) agent told her it sounded “too Jewish”, so he changed it to Hershey, “which I hated because it made me think of chocolate, and I thought, oh my God, so sweet! I accepted it, but it wasn’t my choice,” she says.

Changing names runs in the family: when her son Free was six, he asked her what his name meant. “I said to him, ‘It means you’re free to change your name when you want,’” she laughs. “It had become a symbol of the 70s and I was embarrassed for him every time he introduced himself: ‘Hi, I’m Free.’ That’s a hard thing to live up to. So we got a book of names and he chose Tom. But when he became an adult, he changed it back to Free,” she says fondly. Free now works as a nurse in Los Angeles.

Hershey worked with some of the best directors around in the 80s, including Martin Scorsese (Last Temptation of Christ), Barry Levinson (The Natural, Tin Men) and Woody Allen, who offered her the role of Lee in his masterpiece, Hannah and Her Sisters, three days after she moved to New York. Hershey is terrific as the fragile sister who falls into an affair with Elliot (Michael Caine), the husband of her sister Hannah (Mia Farrow). I ask Hershey if it struck her later that Allen sort of predicted his own life in that film, given that Farrow’s partner betrays her with a female relative, as Allen would soon do, when he infamously cheated on Farrow with her daughter, Soon-Yi Previn (who appears in the film). The polite smile dies on Hershey’s lips.

Hershey (centre) with Mia Farrow (left) and Dianne Wiest in Hannah and Her Sisters.
Hershey (centre) with Mia Farrow (left) and Dianne Wiest in Hannah and Her Sisters. Photograph: Allstar Picture Library Ltd./Alamy

“I never looked at the film that way, I just looked at it purely for itself. You know, yeah. I don’t really have a lot of comment about that,” she says carefully.

I ask what she thinks of the vilification of Allen over the past decade, with the public and media largely assuming he molested his daughter Dylan, despite his having been cleared by two investigations in the 90s.

John Heard, Bette Midler and Barbara Hershey in Beaches.
John Heard, Bette Midler and Barbara Hershey in Beaches. Photograph: Touchstone Pictures/Allstar

She sighs, considering her answer. “I think it’s a shame. I think people should have fair trials and I don’t know if he did. People rushed to all kinds of judgments and that probably says more about them than what happened – nobody knows what happened, really. I like to give him the benefit of the doubt, but I don’t know what happened either,” she says.

Despite the difficulty in finding roles once a female actor dares to go north of 40, Hershey has never stopped working. Yet the film she’s probably best known for today is Beaches, in which she starred alongside Bette Midler. The 80s was the great era for weepy movies about women, with Terms of Endearment, Steel Magnolias and Beaches, and I ask Hershey if she thinks they could be made today. “Hmm. I’m not sure. I like to think so, but they might need another hook,” she says.

Like many films about and for women, Beaches was critically panned when it came out. “They called it a ‘chick flick’, which really offended me, because a movie with two men is called a film,” Hershey says drily. “But when we were making it, I felt that it was important because it showed that friendship between women is powerful and important, and as the years have gone by, people keep coming up to me saying: ‘I saw it with my best friend and it changed my life’, ‘I saw it with my mother …’ The repercussions are so strong and that pleases me a lot.”

Most pleasingly, she and Midler stayed close after the film and would often go out to dinner together when they lived near to one another. “You see people do a double take at us, and that’s fun. I’ll always love her,” she says.

I ask Hershey if she’s going to take a little break after The Manor, and she laughs. “I love when people say that to actors, ‘Take a break,’” she says, clearly thinking about the aforementioned scrabbling for roles. I ask what she does when she’s not scrabbling. Painting, mainly, she says. “And I’m learning Italian now. I like learning. I’m not closing doors, I’m opening them.”

• The Manor is part of the Welcome to the Blumhouse series and available on Amazon Prime from 8 October


Hadley Freeman

The GuardianTramp

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