Every weekend, we pick a movie you can stream that dovetails with current events. Old, new, blockbuster, arthouse: They’re all fair game. What you can count on is a weekend watch that sheds new light on the week that was. The movie of the week — plus an extra day — for December 30 through January 6 is These Old Broads (2001), which is available to digitally rent on Amazon, YouTube, iTunes, Vudu, and Google Play.
In 2001, Debbie Reynolds — along with Shirley Maclaine, Joan Collins, and Elizabeth Taylor, in her last screen role — starred in These Old Broads, a movie about three screen sirens who reunite after 40 years (with some help from their agent) for a live stage performance of songs from Boy Crazy, the musical that made them stars. The movie was directed by Matthew Diamond (the director, among other things, of last year’s The Wiz Live!) from a screenplay by Elaine Pope and Reynolds’s daughter, Carrie Fisher.
Fisher and Reynolds both died this week — Fisher at age 60 on Tuesday after suffering a heart attack on December 23, and Reynolds at age 84 after suffering a stroke on Wednesday. It was a massive loss to both their families, as well as to millions of fans around the world, who found inspiration in both women’s gumption, talent, creativity, honesty, and relationship with each other.
They also had a turbulent history, something Fisher wrote about in her 2006 memoir, Wishful Drinking, which was later turned into a one-woman Broadway show and HBO documentary special (which you can stream). The two found ways to reconcile their differences, however, and grew closer as they grew older.
In 2001, with These Old Broads set to air on ABC, Fisher told the New York Times’s Hilary de Vries, “Everyone keeps saying how autobiographical this film is, but it's really more of a farce.” Which you can see — it’s a film that draws liberally on Fisher’s inside knowledge of Hollywood to skewer sentiments about aging actresses and what makes for good show business.
But it certainly is autobiographical. Wesley Westbourne (Jonathan Silverman), the beleaguered show business son who sets about getting the TV special made after a rerelease of Boy Crazy turns out to be a cult hit — the reasons for that become clear later — has a tortured relationship with his mother, Kate (Maclaine), that he has to sort out.
“Why are we so horrible to one another?” Wesley asks Kate, as he’s about to storm away from her after the latest in a string of lifelong arguments.
“Well, that’s simple,” she says. “We have an S&M relationship. Son and mother.”
Meanwhile, it seems everyone has stolen everyone else’s man, and may keep doing so. In the film’s funniest and most poignant scene — if you know the real story — Piper Grayson (Reynolds) and her agent Beryl Mason (Taylor) settle an old score over their old flame, Freddy, whom Beryl stole from Piper. But now, with Freddy long forgotten, the two figure it’s worth burying the hatchet by bad-mouthing the guy, whom Beryl only picked up after a week-long bender anyhow. “I was with Freddy because I was in a blackout!” she says to Piper. “What’s your excuse?”
“He gave me a red convertible, and my mother told me to,” Piper replies. “She thought he was Italian.”
“You do everything your mother tells you to?” Beryl asks.
“Less, now that she’s dead,” Piper says.
Amazingly, there was a real Freddy for the real-life Reynolds and Taylor. And of course Fisher knew this, because Freddy was her father, Eddie Fisher, the singer who left Reynolds to marry Taylor (then left her too). So the scene is laden with dramatic irony, not just because of the actresses’ history but also because Fisher wrote the scene, having her mother and her erstwhile stepmother come to some kind of understanding in public (though they’d put it behind them more privately decades earlier). A New York Times feature published before the film’s release described Taylor’s contribution to this scene as wholehearted:
Ms. Taylor also had some script suggestions. In an obvious reference to Eddie Fisher, Ms. Taylor's character tells Ms. Reynolds's character how much she regrets stealing her husband 40 years ago. ''Liz told Carrie to write that scene because she said I deserved to have that after all these years,'' Ms. Reynolds says. “She kept saying, ‘Have her really tell me off and make it meaner -- it's not funny enough.’”
Fisher also slipped in a joke about a woman who had liposuction and “within a few months she looked like Jabba the Hut” — the character who famously imprisoned Princess Leia, played by Fisher, in Return of the Jedi. Fisher hated the scene and the gold bikini she had to wear in it, and gets a tiny bit of revenge by having Collins describe Jabba as “a sea slug from outer space.”
Fisher has a cameo in the film as a hooker when the women are hauled into jail, but it’s Reynolds who gets the spotlight in the film Diamond described this week to Variety as “a love letter to her mother, Elizabeth, Shirley, and Joan.” Reynolds is the sweet blonde who seemed innocent back when Boy Crazy was shot but has an edge and a casino empire now — the epitome of a woman who’s fought her way to the top.
These Old Broads struck a sober note, too: It’s always been hard for aging actresses to find work in a Hollywood still dominated by men. That’s been changing in the past few years — three of this year’s most lauded movie performances came from women over 50, Viola Davis (51), Annette Bening (58), and Isabelle Huppert (63) — but Hollywood has a long way to go. Fisher and Reynolds were loud voices in the push to recognize women as whole people and not just props in the entertainment industry, and These Old Broads, in its farcical way, was part of that.
The film ends with a number called “What a Life,” and I can’t really think of a better way to sing these two giants out.
Thanks, Debbie and Carrie, for living your big, bold lives.