There’s a scene in Joan Collins’ latest movie where her character, a faded Hollywood siren living out her twilight years in a retirement home, dares to remove the armour of her wig and make-up and show her true face to the world. It’s such an exposing, vanity-free moment, Weekend can’t help but wonder if there’s also an element of Joan Collins, the actress, liberating herself from her legendary glamourpuss image.
‘You really thought that?’ says Collins, clearly unimpressed by the theory. ‘You thought that that was Joan Collins? The character, Helen, is not actually supposed to be glamorous at all – she’s wearing hideous make-up and a stupid, ghastly wig, which she’s using to try to recapture her lost youth from the Sixties. That’s the character. I hope people won’t think that’s Joan Collins.’
We’ll take that as a no, then. But Helen is a hard-nosed schemer of the type Collins has specialised in over the years, Dynasty superbitch Alexis Carrington being the most celebrated example. Is that, in part at least, because she’s a bit of a tough cookie herself?
‘I’m not as tough as I seem,’ she says. ‘I’ve played some very vulnerable roles – strangely enough, the ones people haven’t seen. Helen, in fact, has a very vulnerable side.’
The Time of Their Lives is a bittersweet road movie charting Helen’s desperate bid to revive her long-dead career by gatecrashing the funeral of an old flame in the south of France. She’s accompanied, somewhat reluctantly, by Priscilla, a repressed housewife played by Pauline Collins, who her namesake last worked with in a 1980 episode of Roald Dahl’s Tales of the Unexpected.
‘Even though we hadn’t seen each other since, that bond was still there,’ says Collins. ‘People often ask me why I’m not friends with so-and-so I’ve worked with, but one of the reasons actors call each other darling is because you meet so many people, you can’t remember their names.’
Collins, of course, is perfect casting for a former Hollywood starlet. Having made her name in Britain as the ‘coffee bar Jezebel’ in a run of films for the Rank Organisation, she was barely out of her teens when she headed to La La Land and signed a contract with 20th Century Fox. At the time, she was touted as the studio’s answer to Elizabeth Taylor (‘Was I?’ she says coyly), who beat her to the title role of Cleopatra. Received wisdom has it that things didn’t pan out quite as expected but, today at least, Collins is having none of it.
‘Are you kidding?’ she says. ‘How many girls do you know who, at the age of 20, go to Hollywood, make twelve hundred and fifty dollars a week – the equivalent today of about 10,000 pounds today – and get to star in movies with Bette Davis, Richard Burton, Gregory Peck and Paul Newman? You think that's 'not working out'? Hello.’
How easily did the girl from Maida Vale adjust to moving in such elevated circles? ‘Well I came from a showbusiness family,’ she says (her father Joseph was an agent who later represented The Beatles). ‘Our house was always full of famous people, so I was used to being around stars.’
Whatever her take on her Hollywood adventure, when camp vamp Alexis sashayed into Dynasty in 1981 – turning the struggling soap into the planet’s most-watched TV programme – there was a sense of Collins having finally delivered on her early promise, with only Princess Diana to rival her as the world’s most famous woman.
‘I’m not sure about that,’ she demurs. ‘But it made me quite famous, yes. I did so many interviews and photoshoots…I think I’ve been on more than 700 magazine covers. And the only one I got paid for was Playboy!’
Collins raised eyebrows by appearing nude in the magazine at the age of 50. ‘Forty-nine, thank you,’ she corrects. ‘But why would it raise eyebrows? I looked fantastic.’
She’s widely credited with saving Dynasty, which had been labouring in the shadow of its arch-rival Dallas, but says: ‘The producers didn’t exactly give me any credit. I had to fight to get a salary I felt I deserved. And it still wasn’t as much as John Forsyth – he had in his contract that he had to have several thousand dollars more than anybody else.’
Weekend has been warned the one subject that’s off the table today is Donald Trump. Collins has known the 45th President of the United States a long time, and has previously described his political rise as ‘extraordinary’. But she does confirm that her take on Alexis was partly inspired by him.
‘I had an image in my head of my friend Cappy Badrutt, an incredibly glamorous woman whose husband was head of the Palace Hotel in St Moritz, which was the hub of the most glamorous jet-set life,’ she recalls. ‘Alexis was based on a mixture of her and a really tough, hard businessman, who was really relentless in their pursuit of getting their own way. So Donald came to mind.’
An unabashed admirer of old-world Hollywood style (regardless of politics, she’s hailed Ivana Trump as ‘the most glamorous leading lady in Washington since Jackie Kennedy’), Collins – who looks fabulous at 83 – is no stranger to the caviar and jet-set life herself. Does she ever feel like slumming it and just taking the bus?
‘Of course not!’ she says, horrified. ‘Why would I want to get on a bus? I do love caviar, I admit it. I like clothes, I love make-up – I’ve always liked looking as good as I can. There’s enough grimness in the world. As far as I’m concerned, wearing make-up improves any woman 100 per cent, and I don’t understand why women don’t want to do it.’
Today, Collins – who has three children and three grandchildren – divides her time between homes in London, LA, New York and France. She and her husband, theatre director Percy Gibson, have just celebrated their 15th wedding anniversary – the longest of any of her five marriages – and she was made a Dame in the 2015 New Year Honours. She was devastated by the loss of her sister Jackie later that year and, on the day of Weekend’s audience, she’s having ‘a nightmare’ after the ceiling of her London flat collapsed. But otherwise, she says, life is good.
‘Every morning I wake up and, as I’m doing my stretches, I think, “it’s good to be alive”. I’m really lucky. I’m very fit and healthy. I was born with a happy gene, I hardly ever get depressed. I bounce through life with optimism, enthusiasm and joie de vivre. My philosophy is that you have to eat life, or life will eat you.’
Published in Waitrose Weekend, March 9, 2017
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