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In the late ‘90s, Jackie Collins was a guest on Hollywood Party, a radio show I co-hosted in Italy; she was promoting the latest novel in her best-selling series about “dangerously beautiful” Italian-American mobster’s daughter Lucky Santangelo. That character became the armor-clad version of herself that the author presented to the world. “Buona sera, darling,” she purred at the start of the interview. I asked about her biggest hit, Hollywood Wives, and whether the town really was as jammed with unscrupulous, casting-couch creeps and sexually omnivorous glamazons as her books depicted. “Oh, darling,” she replied. “There might be one or two regular people but who wants to read about them?”
One of the chief takeaways from Laura Fairrie’s warmly affectionate documentary for CNN and the BBC, Lady Boss: The Jackie Collins Story, is how much that mischievous talk-show personality was a construct to protect the guarded person behind the string of raunchy potboilers. She was very much the architect of her own highly successful career, the curator of her own image and the consummate storyteller of her own life, right through to the way she kept a tight lid on the illness that led to her unexpected death in 2015.
Lady Boss: The Jackie Collins Story
Venue: Tribeca Film Festival (Spotlight Documentary)
Airdate: Sunday, June 27 (CNN)
Director: Laura Fairrie1 hour 36 minutes
If you were too young in 1983 to be aware of its impact, it’s impossible to overstate the splash made by Hollywood Wives in the pre-TMZ age, when celebrity and entertainment blind-item gossip had largely gone the way of Hedda Hopper and Louella Parsons. I remember coming out of the water at a gay-friendly swimming spot in Sydney and having to shield my eyes from the sun reflecting off the silver palm trees on dozens of dust jackets of the hardcover edition being devoured by readers. The book made Collins a celebrity to a degree seldom afforded authors, particularly one who made no claims to be a literary artist.
Fairrie’s film is stronger on the personal recollections of friends, family and colleagues than on broader social context. But it forcefully underlines the double-standard by which Collins was judged for writing about women who savored sex just like men, without the usual slut-shaming consequences. Male popular novelists writing in a similar vein, like Sidney Sheldon or Harold Robbins, were spared those harsh judgments. The criticism aimed at Jacqueline Susann years earlier for Valley of the Dolls, in which the women characters were more victimized, was nothing compared to the sustained trashing endured by Collins, despite her books riding the wave of the sexual revolution.
One illuminating clip of a British chat show illustrates how Collins was cruelly set up by the host in a hatchet job, his studio audience stacked with puritanical prudes and outraged feminists who were scathing in their attacks. Whether responding to charges of being a cheap sensationalist or a purveyor of degrading filth, Collins remained classy and good-humored, even when the barbs clearly stung. It’s shocking to see Barbara Cartland, one of the most formulaic hacks ever to call herself an author, lash into Collins on Brit TV from her moral high horse, as the audience chuckles at the batty old dame.
The doc makes the case that Collins’ books actually gave women agency to pursue pleasure and power unapologetically, and the adoring throngs of female fans at her bookstore signings — where every single person in lines stretching way out the door got individual attention — attest to the appetite for those narratives. These books, aptly described in the film as capturing “the ethos of the ‘80s,” created escapist fantasy for women in the same way Ian Fleming’s Bond novels had for men.
It’s not addressed in the doc, but her stories of women owning their sexuality without shame and refusing to hide in the shadows intersected with queer experience during a time of evolving visibility and the intensified stigmatization of the AIDS crisis, generating a substantial LGBTQ readership. With her “big hair before big hair,” her wide-shouldered leopard print jackets, drag-strength makeup and flashy jewels, statuesque Jackie was as much a gay icon as her big sister Joan became during the Dynasty years. There are many reasons Collins’ books sold more than 500 million copies worldwide.
One of the advantages of chronicling the lives of the rich and famous is the incredible wealth of photographic and video archival material, and Fairrie and editor Joe Carey have assembled a cornucopia. This is an engrossing, fast-moving package full of visual interest, marred only by the minor flaw of the neon text identifying interviewees that often proves hard to read. The director includes excerpts from Collins’ fiction, but more revealing are the snippets of handwritten journals from her teen years, shedding light on trauma and self-esteem issues that would drive her to create ballsy women who were not easily intimidated.
Strong suggestions emerge of an inferiority complex developing in the shadow of Joan’s early stardom. Their father was a showbiz agent, a controlling, emotionally distant screamer who clearly favored the elder Collins sister and made Jackie feel “big and clumsy and dull.” The occasional snide comment from Joan, reported in her sister’s journals, cements that impression.
Nevertheless, Jackie was sent to live with Joan in Hollywood and try to break into acting. That avenue never really took off for her, though she did develop skills as a shrewd observer of the Los Angeles celebrity party scene, hanging with people like Michael Caine, Roger Moore and Sean Connery. One observer says Jackie had a talent for taking notes without being intrusive. Over the years, she became close with many real Hollywood wives, some of whom, like Barbara Davis and Tita Cahn, are interviewed at length here. Collins’ people skills are evident in the way so many women refer to themselves as her best friend.
The doc skips back and forth between Collins’ marriages and family life and her emergence as a star in her own right, ascending just as her sister’s career was stalling. A clip of Joan Collins in 1977 sci-fi schlock Empire of the Ants illustrates her spot on the Hollywood food chain of the time, until sexed-up starring roles in adaptations of her sister’s novels The Stud and The Bitch put her back on the radar and arguably paved the way for her eventual career rebirth with Dynasty.
The long-rumored rivalry between the sisters, especially when Joan encroached on Jackie’s turf by signing a $2 million deal to pen her own salacious novels, is touched on delicately but not glossed over. Regardless of the bumps in the siblings’ relationship over the years, the impression from multiple interviewees, including Joan, is that genuine fondness and loyalty bound them together until the end. In other dish, the legendary claim that Jackie lost her virginity to Marlon Brando while still in her teens is alluded to, though not quite confirmed.
Another factor that emerges is Jackie’s resilience. Her brief first marriage, to manic depressive pill addict Wallace Austin, was rough, ending with his suicide the year after their divorce. But her second marriage, to Oscar Lerman, who co-owned the London celebrity nightclub hangout Tramp, lasted 23 years. As a husband and father, he was loving and supportive, encouraging her to finish her first book, The World is Full of Married Men, and agreeing to move the family to Los Angeles when Collins set out to crack the American market.
It was both her tireless work ethic and her survival instinct that kept Collins writing through her grief when Lerman died of prostate cancer in 1992. An extended engagement followed to L.A. businessman Frank Calcagnini, described by her daughters and other intimates as like a gigolo character from one of her novels. “A gambler, a drugger, an alcoholic and an abuser,” is what Tita Cahn calls him. His death from a brain tumor nonetheless was another blow. When Collins herself was diagnosed with stage 4 breast cancer, she took a leaf out of the book of her father, who decades earlier had responded to her beloved mother’s cancer diagnosis by declaring: “We don’t use that word.”
The film’s account of Jackie’s final weeks, when she kept her illness almost entirely to herself, is quite affecting. There’s poignancy in Joan’s recollections, as well as those of business manager Laura Lizer, of a lunch at the Ritz Carlton where Jackie informed her sister of her condition. During that farewell trip home to London, she also appeared on an ITV chat show, looking gaunt but still full of spirit, just days before her death. She went out promoting her work and keeping her sorrows private.
Fairrie doesn’t attempt to rewrite history and make a case for Collins as an underappreciated literary genius. But she paints a stirring picture of a gifted storyteller and a brilliant female entrepreneur, who shrugged off the cultural snobbery and the misogynistic backlash sparked by her “scandalous” work and laughed all the way to the bank.
Venue: Tribeca Film Festival (Spotlight Documentary)
Production companies: CNN Films, AGC Studios, BBC Arts, Passion Pictures, in association with Ventureland
Director: Laura Fairrie
With: Joan Collins, Tiffany Lerman, Tracy Lerman, Rory Green, Barbara Davis, Morton Janklow, Tita Cahn, Bill Collins, Gina Furth, Melody Korenbrot, Hazel Collins, Laura Lizer, Jennifer Daugherty, Jan Gold, Jeffrey Lane, Johnny Gold
Producers: John Battsek, Lizzie Gillett
Executive producers: Courtney Sexton, Amy Entelis, Stuart Ford, Bonnie Voland, Andrew Ruhemann, Mark Bell
Director of photography: Lynda Hall
Music: Mat Davidson
Editor: Joe Carey
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