Byline: Kimberly Cutter
LOS ANGELES — It’s three o’clock in the afternoon on the set of “These Old Broads,” and Elizabeth Taylor, who’s starring in the film alongside Joan Collins, Shirley MacLaine and Debbie Reynolds, has yet to put in an appearance. But according to Nolan Miller, the fabled “Dynasty” designer who’s been commissioned to create the costumes for the film, this is a good thing.
“Believe me, you don’t want to be here when Elizabeth’s on set,” he says. “All of the attention in the room immediately zooms over to her, and the other girls,” he says, nodding to the stage where MacLaine, Collins and Reynolds, resplendent in iridescent beaded chiffon, are rehearsing the film’s final dance routine, “are not happy at all.”
But according to Miller, such upsets are par for the course on the set of “These Old Broads,” a comedy penned by Reynolds’s daughter, Carrie Fisher, that’s due to air on ABC this February. And the film’s stars are the first to admit it.
“Poor Nolan,” says MacLaine, perched majestically in her director’s chair during a break, “He had the impossible job of trying to please four divas, which meant that he had to know how to cover up the parts that we can’t show any more, and emphasize the ones that we still can.”
“That’s right,” chimes Reynolds, who’s seated next to MacLaine — while Collins sits at a noticeable distance, fanning herself as her hairstylist fluffs her wig.
“In the first dress Nolan made me, I looked far too much like I really do,” says Reynolds. “So he had to whip up another one at the last minute that would work a little more magic.” “For us dancers, the legs are always the last to go,” says MacLaine with a wry grin, nodding at the high slit in Reynolds’s skirt. “God knows, everything else is gone on me.”
Such banter could easily have been lifted straight out of the film’s script. The story centers on three aging film stars (Reynolds, MacLaine and Collins) who are sworn enemies, but are coaxed by their agent — played by Taylor — into creating a television reunion special after a film that they’d made 20 years earlier is re-released to massive box office success. Full of high drama tantrums and catty dialogue, the film makes good use of the actresses’ real-life personae — MacLaine appears decked in New Age garb, Collins shows up wrapped in post-facelift bandages and diamonds — and then, of course, there’s the Elizabeth Taylor-Eddie Fisher-Debbie Reynolds triangle that, according to Carrie Fisher, was one of the primary inspirations for the film.
“I’ve always been close to Elizabeth,” says Fisher, “because she was my stepmother, and we were all hanging out at her house one day — Shirley and my mother and Elizabeth and I — and they said, ‘Hey you should write a movie about us.’ And it was one of those things that just ended up coming to life.”
But not without some difficulties. Fisher originally wrote “These Old Broads” as a feature, but sold it to ABC when she was unable to find backing for it. “It’s hard enough to make a movie with a bunch of women,” she says, “but a bunch of women who are pushing 70? Forget it.”
And then, of course, there’s the issue of getting four such formidable personalities to work together on set. “I call it ‘The Perfect Storm,”‘ Fisher laughs. “They are all very complicated, exacting women; I think of them all as uber-icons, but they’re also very hard workers, which is why they’ve survived as long as they have.”
Nevertheless, the actresses reportedly had their share of squabbles — one of which seems to have been over the diminutive and miraculously well-preserved physique of Joan Collins. “When Debbie Reynolds first showed up on set, she said, ‘I’m old and I’m fat and I don’t care,”‘ says Miller. “Then she got a look at Joan Collins and believe me, she cared.”
According to Miller, MacLaine did too. “They’ve all been starving themselves ever since shooting started,” says Miller. “For a while, Shirley didn’t even want to stand next to Joan during filming because she thought Joan made her look fat.”
But if Collins has the edge in the looks department, MacLaine and Reynolds certainly have the advantage when it comes to the dance routines. “These are two professional hoofers,” says Collins, glancing up from her makeup mirror. “It’s a hell of a job trying to keep up.”
Indeed, when Mark Zunino, vice president of Nolan Miller’s company, compliments Collins on her dress for the finale, Collins shoots back, “Well, I better look good because I certainly can’t dance.”
Fisher disagrees. “Joan has been incredible,” she says. “The poor woman had never danced in her entire life, and you would never know it; she looks fantastic.”
But when the film’s director, Mark Diamond, calls “Cut,” it is MacLaine and Reynolds who are practicing their dance steps and Collins who’s repaired to the safety of her makeup table.
Understandably, the task of trying to dress all four actresses to their satisfaction has been something of a feat. “The finale dresses were the hardest,” says Miller of the iridescent beaded nude chiffon ensembles that the three divas are currently wearing on set, “because they all had to be made in the same color fabric, and of course, nobody wanted to wear nude except for Joan.
“At first Shirley only wanted to wear black because she thought it would make her look thinner, and then, of course, Debbie decided she only wanted to wear red because I’d made her a red dress that she liked for the Emmys one year, and finally I threw my hands up and said, ‘That’s fine, ladies, you all just go ahead and make your own dresses then, because I have had enough.” The soft-spoken 6-foot-5-inch Texan grins. “They straightened out after that.”
Indeed, on set, the actresses all gravitate to Miller, lavishing him with praise and gossiping with him between takes, but according to Miller, this is what he refers to as a “good day.”
“There are days when there’s so much screaming on the set,” explains Miller, “you can’t tell if it’s dialogue or real life.”
The only person, it seems, who escapes criticism entirely is Elizabeth Taylor. Miller speaks of her in reverential whispers, and Fisher says, “I don’t care what you’ve heard in the past, she is simply the loveliest, easiest person in the world to work with.” Miller echoes this, nodding to MacLaine, Reynolds and Collins and saying, “Even they don’t dare get into it with her.”
The designer clearly dotes on his cast and gets a pretty serious kick out of working with them. He has designed clothes for all of the actresses except MacLaine in the past, has worked with Taylor on three films including “Sweet Bird of Youth,” and has been a close friend of Collins since their “Dynasty” days. Collins, in fact, was instrumental in getting Miller to work on the film.
“Nolan was visiting me in St. Tropez,” explains Collins, “and I had just signed on to do the film and I said, ‘Darling, you have to do the costumes.’ Nolan’s the only one left who really knows about glamour.”
Elizabeth Taylor seems to agree. On the afternoon that Miller sits for an interview at his offices in Beverly Hills, Taylor calls, asking if Miller can make her a dress for Barbra Streisand’s farewell concert that evening. Apparently even the revered Taylor is still capable of diva-like behavior on occasion.
“Tonight!” Nolan said in affectionate exasperation when he gets off the phone. “Can you imagine? She calls up saying, ‘Please Nolan I have nothing to wear; I really want to wear gold lame,’ and I’m thinking, Elizabeth, you’ve converted three of the bedrooms in your house into closets, am I really supposed to believe you have nothing to wear?”