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INTERVIEW

Joan Collins: ‘I had a great childhood, other than the war’

I just do a thing, I just get on with it, Joan Collins tells Alexis Soloski

Friday 01 April 2022 06:30
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<p>Most ‘young actresses today try to look as ordinary as possible’, says Collins </p>

Most ‘young actresses today try to look as ordinary as possible’, says Collins

“I’m not a bad girl,” says Joan Collins, draped across a white sofa. “I was a very innocent girl. But I had dark hair and green eyes, and I suppose they said that I smouldered.”

It’s a sun-strafed California afternoon in her apartment, part of a luxury building on the edge of Beverly Hills. Collins, an actress whose career has ranged from the sublime (“Land of the Pharaohs”) to the ridiculous (“Empire of the Ants”) to the sublimely ridiculous (“Dynasty”), wears white slacks, an aquamarine blouse and white espadrilles. A pink diamond the size of a strawberry weighs one finger; her hair has been teased toward the heavens. How many synthetic zebras had died for those nearby pillows? That pouf? So many.

As for the smouldering, well, it’s 29C outside. Wouldn’t anyone?

Collins has invited me over – plying me with coffee, water, an assortment of deluxe cookies – to talk about This Is Joan Collins, a documentary that ran on the BBC on New Year’s Day and is now on BritBox.

What does it mean to look back on her life for the project? “I’m not very analytical,” she says languorously. “I just do a thing. I just get on with it.”

For the film, Collins gave the producers access to her archives and home movies. She otherwise discounts her contribution. “I said, ‘Just don’t put in too many of the nude bits,’” she says. But she narrates the film, with much of what she says adapted from her memoirs. “Here I am,” she purrs in the opening moments, “after seven decades in the business, to tell you a thing or two about how to survive the perils of the profession and what it really feels like to get what you want.”

Only rarely could she escape typecasting, but she shrugs that off, too, recounting a conversation she had with actor John Gielgud, in which he told her that because she could never escape her physicality, she could never play an ugly woman

Collins was born in 1933, the eldest child of a dance teacher and a talent agent. As a child, she lived through the Blitz in London – the bombings, evacuations, dislocations – which has made her impatient with what she perceives as whining.

“I have to say, every time I read about an actor today, they’ve all been abused or had terrible childhoods,” she says. “I had a great childhood, other than the war.”

At 17, she signed with a British film studio. She doesn’t believe she was glamorous. Not then. But the press disagreed, and she recalled some of the nicknames she was given: Britain’s bad girl, coffee bar vixen, the torrid baggage. She was typecast accordingly.

At first, it bothered her, she says, “then I shrugged and just got on with it”.

When she was 21, Fox made her a contract player, and she came to California. She had separated from her first husband, Maxwell Reed, an actor who had raped her on their first date, she says. As she wrote in her first memoir, Past Imperfect: An Autobiography, and reiterates in the documentary, most of the men she encountered in the business were predatory.

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She remembers being chased around a house in Palm Springs, a pass made in a car. Then she stopped remembering. “It’s all nasty memories that I don’t wish to relive,” she says. “It happened. It happened to girls all the time.”

How did she survive it? She shrugged and got on with it. “A lot of the time, I would just laugh in their faces,” she says.

Collins and Anthony Newley hold their newly born baby, Sacha, 24 September 1965

In these early years, she developed a reputation for promiscuity, which wasn’t entirely deserved, even as it became part of her fame. (A 2015 auction of her belongings included not only love letters, but also her headboard.) “I did have a lot of boyfriends, but sequentially,” she says. “And I would sleep with some of them. Not at the same time. I think that I was ahead of my time, because women didn’t do that.”

At 30, she married actor and songwriter Anthony Newley and had two children. When her relationship with Newley ended, she married music executive Ron Kass and had a daughter. Later, there was a fourth marriage, to Swedish singer Peter Holm. (“The only one I didn’t understand was the Swede,” she says. “That was such a total mistake.”) She now lives with her fifth husband, theatrical producer Percy Gibson. He was the one who brought the water and took away the cookies.

She left the business after she married Newley, and she struggled to return to it. The documentary includes clips of a particular low point, the real estate investors vs mutant insects B-movie The Empire of the Ants (1977). How did she handle schlocky material? “You do the best you can,” she said. “You learn your lines, you hit your marks and you get on with it.”

Only rarely could she escape typecasting, but she shrugs that off, too, recounting a conversation she had with actor John Gielgud, in which he told her that because she could never escape her physicality, she could never play an ugly woman. “That was true for a certain amount of years,” she says.

She believes that good looks can be a deterrent when it comes to good roles: “Which the young actresses of today realise, which is why most of them try to look as ordinary as possible.”

Collins with co-stars Bob Hope and Bing Crosby as they start work on the film ‘The Road to Hong Kong’, 1961

In the late 1970s, she made a comeback with two soft-core films – The Stud and The Bitch – adapted from novels by her sister Jackie Collins. This exposure led to her most famous role, Alexis in Aaron Spelling’s nighttime soap Dynasty.

Despite well-publicised on-set struggles, and the producers’ petty reaction to her demands for equal pay, she remains proud of Dynasty. Much of the memorabilia hung throughout her apartment dates from that era. “It was glamorous,” she says. “It was about very, very rich people, most of them good looking.” She compared it to the current hit Succession, although she remarked that on Succession they wear shabbier clothes.

Dynasty ended more than three decades ago. Collins hasn’t had a great role since. She thinks she knows why. “Casting directors say, ‘Oh, no, we can’t use Joan Collins in this vixen, bitch part, because it’s too obvious.’ And ‘Oh, no, we can’t have her in this other role. She can only do vixen bitches.’”

Still, she has gone on, describing her glamorous life in columns for The Spectator, where Boris Johnson was once her boss. “Jolly, very funny, great buffoon,” was how she describes him, acknowledging that buffoon was perhaps the wrong word.

“He never cut a word of my diaries,” she adds.

Collins and her husband Percy Gibson attend the 2022 Vanity Fair Oscars party

Collins hasn’t changed much. (Even her look has altered very little, although she claims to have tried Botox only once: “I screamed and left the surgery.”) And she’s not sure if the entertainment industry has either. “I’m not having men making passes at me, so I don’t know,” she says. “But I think probably.” Still, in the wake of the #MeToo movement, she seems worried mostly about the men.

“Sadly, I think that now young men are suffering from being labelled toxically masculine,” she says, “because of this rise of anti-maleness.”

And yet, she identifies as a feminist. “I believe that women are equal to men in every single way,” she says. “Except physical strength. People say you didn’t burn your bra, you wear lipstick. So what? I’m very proud of being a woman.” She added that she hates being called an actor, preferring actress.

“What’s wrong with actress?” she says. “What’s wrong with mother? What’s wrong with woman? Girl? I don’t like having that word taken away.” (Has anyone tried?)

This is about an hour into the conversation, just before I’m ushered out of the apartment just as warmly as I was welcomed in – a photographer has arrived, Collins has smouldering to do. But first I have to ask her about that opening line of the documentary: what does it really feel like to get what you want?

She wakes up every morning and thanks “God or whoever it is,” she says. “I mean, I’m very lucky.”

Then she adds, with something that may have been a wink, “But you make your own luck sometimes, right?”

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

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