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Scandal's History for 'These Old Broads'

In 1958, Liz Taylor stole Debbie Reynolds' husband. Tonight the women co-star in a TV movie written by Carrie Fisher, Reynolds' daughter. Only in Hollywood.

February 12, 2001|WILLIAM KECK | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

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."

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