Saturday, March 06, 2021

The Backstory to 'Broads'

These Old Broads
is a 2001 TV movie written by Carrie Fisher (with Elaine Pope) and starring Debbie Reynolds, Shirley MacLaine, Joan Collins and Elizabeth Taylor. In it, Fisher set out to pen a campy romp that gay audiences would love, a valentine to lovers of Old Hollywood and the legendary ladies who twinkled in its firmanent. 

The premise is simple: A trio of has-been actresses who can’t stand each other team up for a tribute to the 60s beach movie that made them stars (think Where The Boys Are). But the plot of the movie is really beside the point. The real fun of These Old Broads is knowing the backstories of its superstar cast and connecting the dots.

Fisher found her movie title in an old Hollywood story that perfectly captured the attitude toward aging actresses in Hollywood.

In 1962, studio head Jack Warner told producer Robert Aldrich when he asked for financing on a picture starring aging divas Bette Davis and Joan Crawford: “No one’s going to give you a dime for these old broads.” (But Warner was wrong, of course, and Whatever Happened To Baby Jane went on to become the surprise hit of that year.)

Carrie Fisher with her mom Debbie Reynolds, circa 1970

Carrie Fisher herself was one complicated character. Space Princess. Hollywood Princess. And also Princess of Pain - obsessive, intense and bipolar, with a passionate and encyclopedic knowledge of Hollywood folklore. We are fortunate that she was such a prolific writer and chronicler of the many things going on inside that brilliant beautiful mind.

If you’re not familiar with Fisher’s history and Hollywood pedigree, I highly recommend watching her hilarious one-woman show Wishful Drinking (available on HBO) before seeing These Old Broads. In it, she gives an enlightening synopsis of her life in a lecture replete with a flow chart of her famous family tree—aptly titled Hollywood Inbreeding 101. 

Bottom line: it’s all connected—and many of the details must be understood to fully appreciate Broads

Back in 1957, singer Eddie Fisher and girl next door MGM star Debbie Reynolds (parents to Carrie and brother Todd) were America’s sweethearts, and best friends to impresario Mike Todd and his new wife Elizabeth Taylor. (Debbie had even served as Elizabeth’s matron of honor.) Tragically, Mike Todd suddenly died in a plane crash, leaving Elizabeth devastated. Debbie sent Eddie to help her friend in any way he possibly could. 

The Other Woman: Elizabeth Taylor with Eddie Fisher and Debbie Reynolds

Then, as Carrie tells it, “My father rushed to her side—and then made his way around to her front.” The despondent widowed Taylor needed comfort and consolation, and in Eddie’s daughter’s words, “She consoled herself with my father’s p****s.”

The scandal and feud that resulted played out in the tabloids for years to come. Elizabeth was branded an adulteress, and Eddie lost his lucrative TV show. Reynolds divorced Fisher. Fisher and Taylor would marry in 1959, but three years later Taylor would dump him as well for costar Richard Burton, igniting yet another Scandale.

In Broads, Debbie Reynolds plays a role very close to her real self, an unsinkable former movie star who owns a hotel and movie memorabilia museum.  

One key scene in These Old Broads capitalizes on the Debbie/Eddie/Liz scandal and is fascinating to watch, the square-off scene between Elizabeth Taylor and Debbie Reynolds. It’s full of fun, affection and nostalgia as Debbie playfully chastises her former friend for being a nymphomaniac and Elizabeth defends herself by calling Debbie a boring born-again virgin. Debbie forgives Elizabeth and together they tear Eddie to shreds for coming between them. In real life, Debbie and Elizabeth had buried the hatchet years before, but for a classic movie lover it’s a real treat to see an onscreen version of their reconciliation. (It’s the raison d’etre for the whole film, in my opinion!)

Friends forever: Elizabeth Taylor and Debbie Reynolds

With almost nothing to do or interesting to say, Shirley MacLaine fares less well than Debbie and Elizabeth in Broads. The character she plays would have benefited by a dash of the metaphysical/woowoo (some say kooky) spiritual persona that has helped make the name Shirley MacLaine iconic, but no one thought of that.

But of course, MacLaine has backstory that connects her directly to both Debbie Reynolds and Elizabeth Taylor in the Hollywood tapestry of myth. In Postcards from the Edge, Carrie Fisher’s thinly veiled account of her recovery from a drug overdose, MacLaine famously played the role of the mother fashioned after Debbie, opposite Meryl Streep in the Carrie role. 

And Liz Taylor once “stole” the Oscar that MacLaine believed was hers, back in 1961! 

Liz "stole" Shirley's Oscar in 1961, but Shirley got one too in 1984

Nominated for a Best Actress Oscar for her role of Miss Kubelik in Billy Wilder’s The Apartment,  MacLaine was the odds-on favorite to win. That is, until fellow nominee Elizabeth Taylor fell ill with pneumonia in London and was at death’s door. Only emergency surgery saved Elizabeth from drowning in her own lung fluids, along with the prayers of filmgoers worldwide who forgave her sinful past transgressions (specifically, stealing Debbie’s husband Eddie). “I prayed right along with them for Elizabeth’s recovery,” a saintly Debbie Reynolds was quoted as saying.

The Academy voters took pity on her as well and Taylor won, for her performance as a trampy call girl in the sleazy yet slick soap opera Butterfield 8, prompting Shirley MacLaine to retort cynically, “I lost to a tracheotomy.” (MacLaine would finally win the coveted gold statuette for Best Actress in 1984, for Terms of Endearment.)

Connecting the dots to…Joan Collins. When Elizabeth had fallen ill, it had been none other than Joan Collins who was tapped to replace Taylor as the Queen of the Nile in the big screen Fox epic Cleopatra. (But Taylor, of course, recovered!)

Joan Collins almost took over the role of Cleopatra from an ailing Taylor - but she recovered!

Collins, considered to be the poor man’s Elizabeth Taylor, had been a Hollywood glamour girl for half a decade but had never achieved the A-List status of a Taylor or a Monroe. The British beauty did some high profile parts (taking over the role Joan Crawford played in The Women for the color remake The Opposite Sex, for example) but her filmography also contained numerous lesser efforts such as the sword-and-sandal epic Land of the Pharoahs.

Married to flamboyant songwriter and performer Anthony “What Kind of Fool Am I” Newley in the 1960s, Collins became more well known as an international jetsetter than as an actress, though she did take time out to raise a family. A ubiquitous presence on International Best Dressed Lists and in the tabloids, Collins was seen frugging at posh nightclubs in seqinned minidresses, glittering with diamonds, sporting her trademark false lashes and kohl-black eyeliner, high bouffant wigs and falls. Fabulous!

Building an icon: From 1950s glamour girl to 1960s fashionista to TV's top femme fatale

In the 1970s, Collins worked steadily, often in horror films (like Tales That Witness Madness and The Empire of the Ants) and titillating semi-sexploitation ugh films like The Bitch (based on a book by her equally famous sister Jackie Collins, who exposed the seamier side of fame and fortune with her racy contemporary romance novels, most notably The Hollywood Wives.)

Then came the TV series Dynasty, in which her tour de force performance as the beautiful, villainous and flawlessly fashionable Alexis Morell Carrington Colby Dexter Dexter Rowan revitalized her career and propelled her to a richly deserved icon status of her own. 

In Broads, Joan looks spectacular - she was 67 at the time - but she seems miscast in her role of a gangster’s moll (shades of Lana Turner and Johnny Stompananato) and her American accent leaves something to be desired. 

Perhaps Elizabeth had been offered the Collins role first and turned it down (though it wouldn’t have been a good fit for her either) and then bade Fisher to create a role in which she could relax in bed most of the time. Taylor suffered from constant agonizing pain from back trouble and had difficulty walking, and indeed for the rest of her life conducted most of her business from her bedroom! 

Like Mae West, Elizabeth did some of her best work in bed

(For all her beauty, talent, fame and and money, Taylor’s life was indeed beset by crisis after crisis, tragedy after tragedy, dozens of health scares, operations and close calls. A long-running soap opera. But she still found the energy and time to create a billion-dollar perfume business and to establish, organize and promote the AIDS charity AMFAR.)

In her small role as a high-powered Hollywood agent, Elizabeth steals the film from her famous costars, a zoftig earth mother lounging in her caftan and barking orders in a thick New York accent.  (Taylor had converted to Judaism when she married Mike Todd and ever since, always referred to herself as a Jewish American Princess and a Jewish Mother, and she plays it to the hilt here.)

If only the movie itself were as interesting as the stories behind it and the stars in it!  It’s a mess in many respects (a mix of slapstick farce and bitchy comedy of manners) but its heart is in the right place. Any movie that gives work to mature, powerful, accomplished women is all right in my book. When it’s on again, you can be sure I’ll be watching it! 

Thanks for the opportunity to add this entry to the Joan Collins Blogathon hosted by RealWeegieMidget Reviews and Taking Up Room! I look forward to exploring the glittering career of Dame Joan with my fellow bloggers! 


  1. Anonymous1:30 PM

    I am a big fan of DEBBIE REYNOLDS. Have you seen Debbie in very many movies? P.S. I only skimmed through the article. I will read it later. CLASSIC TV FAN

  2. I'm pretty certain I watched this years ago when it was first on. You're right that the behind-the-scene stories are much better than the story on-screen. I wonder if people like Reynolds and Taylor really patch things up or only appear to do so for public consumption -- but apparently they did make up in real life (but I doubt if they became best friends, LOL). As for MacLaine, her daughter did a real number on her in her tell-all book a few years ago.

    As usual Chris, another very interesting piece!

  3. Hi Classic TV Fan - me too, my two favorite Debbie Reynolds movies are Singin in the Rain from her early career and Mother from her later years. Big fan of Debbie and Carrie, loved the documentary about their lives together, Bright Lights on HBO. Thanks for stopping by!
    - Chris

  4. Hi Bill - thanks as always for your readership and support! You are right, I doubt Debbie and Elizabeth were ever buddy buddy but I do know that Carrie idolized Elizabeth and became quite friendly with her. This TV movie is not a classic but great fun, and has its moments! I did read the Mommie Dearest-style hatchet job on Shirley...but prefer MacLaine’s own entertaining books. Loved Saging While Aging and Above the Line, two of her most recent books.
    - Chris

  5. I remember when this first aired. Does that make me an official old broad?

    In her act, Debbie had to start bemoaning that all of the people she made cracks about were gone!

  6. Hi Patricia - you are an honorary legendary lady in my book! Thanks for stopping by! Debbie is right, so we have to keep these legends alive for the generations who may not otherwise hear about them. Wish I had been able to attend one of her nightclub acts, Debbie was a very funny lady!
    - Chris

  7. Hi Chris, always great to read your entry and this one is perfectly Joan. Thanks for your mention of this as her role here needed a mention to make this blogathon complete. Thanks for joining my blogathon.

  8. I loved These Old Broads because it gave roles to these fabulous old broads! I had read somewhere that Lauren Bacall, Julie Andrew’s and June Allyson had been offered roles — so said Shirley MacLaine in a documentary. That would have been fascinating to see!

    I was fortunate enough to see Carrie in her show ‘Wishful Drinking’ and Carrie and Debbie in a live discussion in Chicago. They sat on stage and told stories while Carrie drank lots of Diet Coke. At one point, Carrie excused herself to pee and Debbie just kept on telling stories until Carrie returned. It was hilarious and the audience loved them!!

  9. Hi Gill - thank YOU for hosting, so much fun! I found that pic of Joan as Cleopatra in an old Life Magazine layout! So perfect in her one and only movie with Liz!!

  10. Hi Michael - thanks for stopping by! Had NO IDEA that Bacall, Andrews and Allyson might have been cast! Wow!! And I envy that you were able to see Carrie's show LIVE as well as a Carrie/Debbie appearance!
    Thank you so much for your enlightening comments!

  11. What a fun read -- So much history converging into a TV movie featuring 4 legends! Even though it sounds like the fictionalized drama in this case paled in comparison with real-life, I can imagine that even with a little knowledge of these "old broads'" backgrounds, it would be a treat to see.

  12. I really enjoyed reading about all the Hollywood history in your piece. I had heard how Collins grew tired of playing second fiddle to Taylor and not getting the roles she deserved at 20th Century Fox. It is nice to believe that, despite studio politics there was no animosity between the two of them. Nice article.

  13. Hi Michael - thank you so much for reading! It's true, seemed like Elizabeth made more friends than enemies in her eventful life--despite all the tabloid drama. Most who worked with her said she was salt of the earth, a true professional, and she really showed her true colors of compassion when the AIDS crisis struck. When Taylor passed away, Joan Collins was on Larry King and said she had always considered Taylor a friend.
    Thanks again for commenting!

  14. Hi Brian - thanks so much for stopping by! I love your blog! I think one of the wonderful things about a film like Broads is that it might encourage younger viewers to seek out the great films that made these ladies famous in the first place...
    Thanks for reading and commenting!

  15. I have long mulled over the various connections of these gals and this TVM, so it was neat to see you profiling it here! There are even more connections to be found. While working in Hollywood movies, Collins dated and became engaged to Warren Beatty, MacLaine's brother! So they were very nearly in-laws in real life. And Collins had also guest-starred on "Mission: Impossible" thrown together with Peter Graves (who plays her husband here) for most of the episode. Then you have Debbie Reynolds campaigning for (and winning) the role of "The Unsinkable Molly Brown" which MacClaine was in line for....! Collins recently worked with Reynolds' granddaughter on "American Horror Story." It's a small world, that Tinseltown! But Collins was not in "The Swarm." The only thing close she ever did was "Empire of the Ants," a different type of pest. LOL Thanks! Glad to see you're still at it. ;-)

  16. Hi Poseidon!! Thanks for the addendum, Hollywood is a close-knit and incestuous town!! Ohhh, I forgot totally about the Warren Beatty connection! Before it was six degrees of Kevin Bacon, it was two degrees of the prolific Warren, and he connected a LOT of Hollywood dots!!

    So happy to hear from you and hope all is well. I am forever lurking on your amazing blog whenever I am in need of some classic Hollywood eye candy! I just google something like "Bert Convy shirtless" and end up at Poseidon's Underworld! :-)

  17. Nice review, but a couple of errors regarding Joan Collins... Land of the Pharaohs was far from a B movie - it was a big-budget widescreen epic which happened not to do too well at the box office. And Joan was not in The Swarm!

  18. Hi thanks for reading, Millie Fan, I stand corrected on both counts. Pharaohs was indeed a widescreen color spectacle. And I meant Empire of the Ants, not the Swarm, and will make that correction above.
    - C