Scandal's History for 'These Old Broads'

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She was photographed standing alone on her front lawn in 1958. Affixed to her blouse: a diaper pin as a reminder to the world of the infant son who remained inside with older sister Carrie, 1 1/2. America's sweetheart, Debbie Reynolds, only 26, had just been abandoned by Eddie Fisher for another woman. Not just any woman, but the most beautiful woman in the world: Elizabeth Taylor--Cleopatra incarnate. At the time, the story was considered in Hollywood to be the scandal of the century. It permanently destroyed Fisher's career, and at the same time catapulted Taylor to femme fatale superstardom.

Not in anyone's wildest dreams could a day be envisioned when Taylor and Reynolds would appear together on screen without tearing each other's hair out. Unthinkable. But, surprise, that day has arrived.

The ABC movie "These Old Broads," which airs tonight, is significant as a testament to the power of compassion and forgiveness to conquer even the worst betrayals. Years before Eddie Fisher entered either of their lives, Taylor and Reynolds had been 17-year-old chums at the MGM studio school. Little did they know then that their mutual love, and much later hatred, for the same man would be the catalyst that would rip them apart, and ultimately unite them again.

Tonight's reunion of these living legends is made even more remarkable by the jokes Taylor's and Reynolds' characters swap about a man named "Freddie Hunter" who had come between them years earlier. Where it gets just a little strange is that the jokes--some referring to Freddie's sexual prowess (or lack thereof) were penned by screenwriter Carrie Fisher, daughter of Reynolds and Fisher, and stepdaughter of Taylor.

"It was a very serious thing for them--here's the daughter of one, who's the stepdaughter of the other," says Shirley MacLaine. She, Reynolds and Joan Collins portray three aging Hollywood actresses (Taylor is their talent agent who reunites them for a TV special). "The three of them met and decided what they would and wouldn't say. It was really quite Hollywoodishly historical."

Collins, 67, was in England when the scandal broke and has little memory of what went down, but 66-year-old MacLaine recalls the tabloid frenzy as if it were yesterday. "I remember the press defining Debbie with a kid on each hip, with bobby pins, pigtails and ribbons in her hair," says MacLaine, who also remembers bouncing baby Carrie on her knee. "Her husband had been stolen by the vixen--the scarlet lady. I remember thinking how could Eddie Fisher, this little guy, attract such extraordinary women."

Though Carrie Fisher, now 44, admits the amount of sex she included in her movie leaves her "sort of mortified," she couldn't resist the opportunity to exploit her family's rich history for laughs. "You get these women together and everyone's going to want to know, 'What are they going to say to each other?,' 'Is there still a problem between them?,' " says Fisher. "There's such an opportunity here. At a certain point I realized ABC was paying for my conflict resolution in a public way."

In reality, both Fisher and Reynolds made peace with Taylor a few years back. Oddly enough, it was Eddie Fisher's tell-all "Been There, Done That," published in 1999, which helped transform the women's civility toward each other into bona fide friendships. "My father's book was very upsetting for all of us, and it made all of us better friends," says Carrie Fisher, who has not spoken to her father in two years. "I understand on a certain level that he really felt like he lost his career because he left my mother for Elizabeth Taylor, but what he did [in writing the book] was something you don't do. He was incredibly unkind."

Blurring the Line Between Fact, Fiction

Taylor and Reynolds, both 68, do not play themselves in the film, but it is at times difficult separating fact from fiction. Reynolds' character, Piper Grayson, is first shown in a struggling casino--an allusion to the real-life Debbie Reynolds Hotel and Casino in Las Vegas, which went belly up in 1997 after umpteen "Grand Openings" failed to lure fresh crowds. (Reynolds places the blame on her latest ex-husband Richard Hamlett's poor management.)

Taylor, as talent agent Beryl Mason (based on the retired Sue Mengers), performs much of her scenes from bed--where the real Taylor spends many of her waking hours now. "Elizabeth's part was written for her so she wouldn't have to walk, because Elizabeth has this terribly painful disintegrating spine," explains Reynolds.

MacLaine's character, Kate Westburn, like the actress, is a New Age follower who chants in front of candles. When Fisher began writing the script, MacLaine told her, "Look, if you want to make fun of all my New Age beliefs, then go right ahead--as long as they're funny jokes."

For the part of the third "old broad," there had been talk of trying to lure Doris Day out of retirement, but, says MacLaine, "she wouldn't leave her dogs." Then Julie Andrews was considered, but her current litigation over a surgical procedure to remove a cyst from her throat prevented her from accepting a role in which she would be required to sing.

So the part of mobster girlfriend Addie Holden ultimately went to Collins, who's careful to point out that she shares no similarities with her cosmetically altered character. "I know that everybody thinks that I have had all this liposuction, but I have not," maintains Collins, who at 21 was engaged to MacLaine's brother, Warren Beatty. "I can be a bit of a narcissist, but not to the extent that Addie is."

Shortly before filming was to begin, the team lost one cast member. June Allyson, signed to play Collins' buttinsky mother, backed out at the last minute, resulting in an unknown taking the role. Fisher remains a bit peeved with Allyson. "[June] said, 'I really wanted to be one of the broads,' and didn't want to be dowdy," says Fisher, who says she assumed the veteran actress would want the opportunity to work again. "What's she waiting for?"

The film is sprinkled with references to Hollywood scandals: One of MacLaine's story lines is based on Loretta Young's decades-long refusal to publicly acknowledge her illegitimate daughter as her biological child. But it is the dialogue between Taylor and Reynolds that is most intriguing--leaving viewers to wonder just how much might actually have been said between the real-life women.

"It all happened so long ago and we were so young," says Taylor's character to Reynolds', who responds, "I forgave you years ago. So let's move on."

"Piper, I did you a favor," continues Taylor. "A favor," corrects Reynolds, "is doing something for someone that they are unable to do for themselves."

An Unexpected Reunion at Sea

According to Reynolds, that conversation is fairly grounded in reality. Their unlikely reunion occurred on the Queen Elizabeth ocean liner in 1964. Unbeknownst to the women, Taylor, then married to Richard Burton, and Reynolds, wed to Harry Karl, had booked voyage to England on the same ship. "I didn't know she was on the boat," recalls Reynolds. "But I sure noticed there was a lot of press. They were everywhere hiding, so I sent a note to her cabin saying, 'Let's just get this over with and have a meeting. I'll come to your suite or you can come to mine. We'll talk it out, have dinner and let them take pictures so they'll get off the boat and leave us alone.' "

During their chat, what Reynolds remembers is Taylor's apology. "She admitted that she made a mistake and was sorry that she hurt me, and that all through the years she'd always regretted it," remembers Reynolds. Taylor spent the next few years in England with Burton and didn't even see Reynolds for another 15 years. But during the past decade, the women have occasionally lunched together at Taylor's home.

Carrie Fisher's reconciliation with Taylor took a while longer.

She has only faint memories of her father's relationship with Taylor. "I remember my father taking me over to the Beverly Hills Hotel and Elizabeth was in a baby-doll negligee," recalls Fisher. "We went in the back and her sons were in the pool, and I remember thinking, 'Oh, they get him as a father now.' "

Backstage at a gay and lesbian awards show five years ago, hostess Fisher was shocked to receive a congratulatory floral bouquet from Taylor, which Fisher viewed as "flowers apologizing for stealing my father." Having recently learned that Taylor had referred to her mother as a "goody two-shoes," Fisher was hesitant to accept the peace offering but still agreed to an invitation to meet Taylor in her home.

"Elizabeth said, 'I hear we should discuss your family,' " remembers Fisher, who responded by challenging Taylor about her alleged "goody two-shoes" comment. While Taylor denied making the crack, Fisher says her former stepmother "was great about it." Like a scene from "Dynasty," the awkward day ended with Taylor playfully pushing Fisher into her backyard pool. "She gave me something to wear afterward and from then on we were OK."

At the request of Taylor and Reynolds, Fisher began conceptualizing "These Old Broads" for her "mothers" four years ago. Fisher's stay in a mental hospital postponed the project, but last year, with the collaboration of writing partner Elaine Pope ("Seinfeld"), Fisher got the project on the fast track with ABC--after it nearly died on the roads connecting the various film studios.

The end result, says MacLaine, was well worth the sweat and struggle.

"I had more fun on this film than any I've ever made," says MacLaine, who now hopes for a sequel. (There's even been some discussion of a weekly series, though that seems highly unlikely.) The sequel, according to MacLaine and Fisher, would involve the return of the women's assumed-deceased director, a gay wedding, a mobster's revenge and the introduction of more children and grandchildren for the "broads."

Taylor declined to be interviewed for this story, citing her preference to not dredge up the past. But Reynolds believes the project brought Taylor closure. "Elizabeth has tried very hard in her life to make amends, and she certainly has succeeded in doing that," says Reynolds. "And doing this brought us much closer together. Elizabeth did this for very little money. She wanted to do it for Carrie . . . and she wanted to do it for me."

"It was like my mother and Elizabeth found each other again," says Fisher of their time together on the film. "There was a certain point when Elizabeth said to my mother, 'If there was anything I ever did . . . ,' then my mother started crying. It was so sweet."

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"These Old Broads" can be seen tonight at 9 on ABC. The network has rated it TV-14-DL (may be unsuitable for children younger than 14, with special advisories for suggestive dialogue and coarse language).

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