Underrated; the case for Joan Collins

Okay, okay. Let's own up and get it over with: Joan Collins's face does look as if it would run if you touched it. Yes, she was the rankest of Rank Starlets - cop her oh-so Maida Vale juvenile delinquents in such black-and-white Brit B's as Cosh Boy and Turn the Key Softly - and there was a moment during her reign as Alexis Morrell Carrington Colby Dexter Rowan when her resemblance to Joan Crawford began to get seriously scary: those shoulder pads, that warpaint, the ruthless determination to adapt, remodel, remix and endure as a star, no matter what.

But Joan Collins is talented. Within a certain range, sure. Yet within that range she is indisputably the mistress of her art. Critics who insist on seeing her as overblown, instead of admiring her understanding of a medium that demands that every emotion be pitched high and wide to some imaginary balcony, still sneer at her delivery of such Dynasty gems as "Do have a Patagonian strawberry - I had them flown in this morning". But who else but Joan could make such a throwaway sound even remotely witty? If the line were any more of a dog it would need a bowl with its name on it, but Collins gives it a knowing inflection and a sweeping hand gesture - she distracts your attention from the content and highlights the absurdity.

Watching her eat on Dynasty was always a treat. Landed with boring exposition, stalks of celery and caviar crackers would be drafted in to punctuate the dreary dialogue: "You mean [bite] Blake's multi-billion oil deal [munch] with the Saudis [swallow] could be stopped by the Senate? [nibble]" It's a lost skill this; once it was called "delicious" and Collins, one of the last actresses to do the Rada training / Hollywood studio system thing, marries the timing and daring required. She combines the best of British with the most blatant of American, which is why she's the perfect actress for Coward, not that anyone noticed when she brought his short stories and sketches to television and his Private Lives to the West End. Her Amanda, both restrained and energetic, was triumphantly transatlantic, as all Coward's top-rank heroines are, with the added ingredient of Collins's own knowingness - the loose cannon that compels her, in the midst of an elaborate fancy dress scene in the spy flick Nutcracker, suddenly, violently, to blow the pink feather on her hat out of her face.

This, of course, is what Crawford lacked: humour. And it's what Collins has in abundance. It's her signature, her message: I Am What I Am. What she is is more than enough, but you know the British - she'll probably have to be dead and gone before anyone has a good word to say about her.

JOHN LYTTLE

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