Through Two Peepers in Tune with the Times

4 Divas

Elizabeth Taylor sits in bed and tells Debbie Reynolds how much she regrets stealing her husband 40 years ago. Ms. Reynolds owns a pathetic hotel where she displays her old costumes and sings in the casino. Shirley MacLaine is in a perennial road company of "Mame" and immersed in reincarnation. And Joan Collins not only undergoes liposuction and facial surgery every few years, she also speaks with a phony British accent, even though she's from Kansas.

It's fact. It's fiction. It's "These Old Broads," a two-hour ABC film being made here. Rarely has a television movie in production stirred so much interest - and no wonder. The comedy has a cast of four divas - Ms. Taylor, Ms. Reynolds, Ms. MacLaine and Ms. Collins - who mock themselves, one another and their images.

"I haven't had a part like this since `Dynasty, " said Ms. Collins as an assistant lighted her cigarette. "We all send each other up. This is a camp pastiche. Very naughty, very close to the mark. And Im working with Oscar winners. All Ive got is a Golden Globe."

It's also a bit of a comeback for Ms. Taylor. "I've had so much trouble with my health, and I haven't worked in ages," she said. "My main scene with Debbie is hysterical. This movie has actually made us very close. It's a very special relationship. We both sort of had the same ghastly experience so many years ago."

(The "ghastly experience" was, of course, Ms. Taylor's flamboyant affair with and marriage to Eddie Fisher, Ms. Reynolds's husband.) The movie was written by Carrie Fisher, the daughter of Ms. Reynolds and Mr. Fisher, with Elaine Pope. It deals with three great stars of Hollywood's golden age whose 1962 musical, "BoyCrazy," becomes a huge cult hit in re-release. A sleazy television executive decides to reunite "these three crones" for a musical special. Their legendary agent, played by Ms. Taylor, makes a shrewd deal, and rehearsals begin, despite the fact that all the women loathe one another and the Taylor character can't keep her hands off men. ("I think of sex as a language, one that I'm fluent in," she says.)

Certainly the movie set is far more ribald - and zany - than anything that could be shown on television. There are numerous jokes about men that the women knew, and plenty of sly and even affectionate comments about one another. But beneath the camaraderie the stars are most certainly deeply competitive and, as expected, quite cutting about their co-performers. For example, the first reporter visiting the set was chastised by several of the women for spending too much time with the others and not enough with them.

"This is such a hoot; I've never seen so much female vanity," said Ms. MacLaine, rolling her eyes. She gazed across the film set, the lobby of a hotel, and watched Ms. Collins prepare for a scene, wearing a figure-revealing corset that showed her off as glamorously as ever. "Some of them spend two and a half hours in makeup. And the female bawditry! It's like a locker room in here. You never heard such language."

Nearby Ms. Reynolds, who mocks her image as the girl next door in all those MGM musicals, said that she was 68 but that the other women were, well, of an indeterminate age. "Elizabeth doesn't age," she said. "Neither does Joan. They're ageless. They'll probably say they're 10 years younger than me. I don't care. Just give my age. The other girls - you can guess." She laughed.

Surveying the set, Ms. Reynolds said: "Joan looks drop-dead divine. Her body, her figure look sensational. She plays the consummate witch, which is something I could never do. And Elizabeth! We had this big musical number. We were all wearing fake jewelry except Elizabeth. She wore her own. She said she bought it with her own money. I think she got it from a nice fellow."

The most resonant scene is between the characters played by Ms. Reynolds and Ms. Taylor. In the original script, they talked about Ms. Taylor's character running off with the other's husband, Buddy. The actresses, making an obvious point, changed the name to Freddy.

The Taylor character says, "I did you a favor by taking Freddy away." The Reynolds character replies that she didn't need such a favor. "I would have been perfectly able to lose Freddy on my own," she says. Ms. Reynolds said that in real life she and Ms. Taylor had actually made up several years after "that event," as she referred to it.

"When she first married Richard Burton, we were on the same ship on a trans-Atlantic crossing," Ms. Reynolds said. "It was a six-day crossing. So we talked. She made her apologies to me. I accepted them. We were friends when we were 17. That event took place when I was 24. And here we are at our age now - funny old broads." (The publication last year of Eddie Fisher's "Been There, Done That," a tell-all book in which he trashed both women as selfish, insecure and driven, bonded them even further, they said.)

The movie, which includes several musical numbers by David Shire and Richard Maltby Jr., makes every effort to blur fact and fiction. And the histories of the people involved are almost incestuous.

Ms. Fisher calls Ms. Taylor her ex- stepmother. Ms. MacLaine played a role patterned after Debbie Reynolds in the movie "Postcards From the Edge," which was adapted by Ms. Fisher from her autobiographical novel. And Ms. MacLaine recalled having dinner 40 years ago with her brother, Warren Beatty, and Joan Collins, who were then engaged.

"That's another story," said Ms. MacLaine, laughing.

The idea for the film came about three years ago on a Sunday, when Ms. Taylor often has friends over to her Bel Air mansion. The guests included Ms. Fisher, Ms. MacLaine and the producer Laurence Mark. A discussion about the scarcity of roles for older women led the group to implore Ms. Fisher to write a screenplay for them. "I said, `Ill try something for you guys, but I couldnt write something for my ex-stepmother and not my mother, " she said. She added, "Ive grown up with these women, and they still treat me like a kid in some freaky way."

The screenplay was initially written as a feature film for the Walt Disney Company, which rejected it. "It was deemed demographically challenged as a feature; they were clearly concerned about its appeal to younger audiences," said Mr. Mark, one of the film's executive producers; the others are Ilene Amy Berg, Ms. Fisher and Ms. Pope. Mr. Mark added that ABC, which is owned by Disney, picked up the project quickly for television. "I hope we surprise the feature film powers-that-be with this one," he said.

The women agreed to do the movie, although Ms. Taylor, Ms. Reynolds and Ms. MacLaine were unaccustomed to how fast a television film is made: 22 days in this case, versus 45 days for a feature film.

"The speed is phenomenal," Ms. Taylor said. "I thought we'd do a five-page scene in one day and another five-page scene the next. They had them booked together. I couldn't believe it. But you acclimate." Ms. Taylor said she took the part because it was essentially a cameo requiring only a few days' work. Most of her time, she said, is devoted to people with AIDS and to her health. "I broke my back three times after the brain surgery because my equilibrium was off," she said. Ms. Taylor added that she had a thriving perfume business - "it keeps the wolf from the door" - and that she recently got an unexpected residual check from "Around the World in 80 Days." That film was produced by Mike Todd, one of her seven husbands, in 1956. "I bought the most beautiful diamond brooch with it; it's a present from Mike," she said. (Mr. Todd died in 1958.)

Ms. Taylor said she missed Mr. Todd and Mr. Burton, who died in 1984 of a cerebral hemorrhage. "I'm a very lucky lady," she said. "I had two great loves in my life." For years after Mr. Burton's death, she said, she couldn't watch the films they had made on television. "That voice and those green eyes - I'd have to change channels," she said. "It would send me into a tailspin.

"But then one day I was changing channels, and there was the early part of `Whos Afraid of Virginia Woolf, " she said. "I thought, `this is ridiculous; Im not going to change it. I watched it through the end and I thought, `You know what? We were pretty good. "

Asked how it felt to be a legend, Ms. Taylor laughed. "That makes me feel like I'm dead," she replied. "Cleopatra was a legend. She died 2,000 years ago. I'm an actress." (Ms. Taylor knows all about Cleopatra. She played the lead in "Cleopatra," the notorious 1963 big-budget flop in which she met Mr. Burton.)

Certainly the most delicate job on this movie set belongs to Matthew Diamond, the director, who must balance the egos and eccentricities of the four stars. Mr. Diamond, an Emmy Award-winning television director and choreographer, said he wasn't too nervous giving orders.

"The reality is they want to be told the truth," he said. "They want a director to look them in the eyes and be told: `That worked, that didnt work; that was funny, that wasnt funny. They want honesty."

Do they get along? "Yes, they do," he said. There was a long pause.

"They mostly get along with each other." He burst into laughter.

"You know what?" he said. "I find that they walk into the room and they look at each other and there is absolute respect for a colleague. There's this sense of: `You made it here, too. Good. Welcome. Because I did, too.



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