Thursday, February 11, 2010

Joans-ing for Collins

There must be something about showbiz folks named Joan that lends itself to survival against all the odds. Joan Crawford certainly carved out a lengthy and prestigious film career out of less than humble beginnings. Joan Fontaine is still kicking (and looking wonderful, all things considered) at 92. Joan Rivers waded through the dicey waters of female stand-up comedy before overcoming a disastrous battle in the late night talk show field and the suicide of her husband, but rebounded to enjoy considerable success and wealth. Then there’s today’s featured gal, Joan Collins, whose career and personal life saw many highs and lows, but who weathered all the storms to land in a field of clover.

Collins was born in 1933 London, England to a mother who was a former dancer and a father who was agent to various stage acts. She spent many a terrified night as a child listening to the German’s bomb the city during WWII. Watching and meeting her father’s clients in the heady world of entertainment, she soon developed two wishes – to play Broadway and to enact the role of Amanda in Noel Coward’s Private Lives. Enrolling at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Arts, she gained a bit of stage experience, but her striking and curvy looks were such that she soon found herself working in the British film industry.

While still in her late teens, she began appearing in a variety of black and white movies, sometimes as a good girl, but occasionally (and often most effectively) as a less than good girl. In 1953, she took part in Decameron Nights, a color film made in Spain that happened to star Joan Fontaine and the ladies enacted various tales from the legendary collection The Decameron. The following year she was married to British cinema star Maxwell Reed.

Eventually, she caught the eye of 20th Century Fox scouts who signed her to a contract and she was placed in Howard Hawks epic film set in ancient Egypt (but filmed in Italy), Land of the Pharaohs. Here she played the evil Princess Nellifer, a rebellious and scheming vixen who is the property of Jack Hawkins, but who carries on with his guard Sydney Chaplin. The expensive production was a flop, though it became popular later in some circles for the campy villainy she displayed. She and Chaplin (the son of Charlie) began an affair as her marriage to Reed faltered almost from the start (she claims that he once attempted to sell her to an Arab Sheik for 10,000 pounds!) and they had so many romantic spaghetti dinners that makeup artists had a tough time keeping the (censorship required) ruby in her belly button! She’s pictured here with costar Dewey Martin, who looks mighty cute in his li’l pyramid-building outfit.

Next up, Joan was assigned to the Bette Davis drama The Virgin Queen. Davis had played Elizabeth I once before in the 30s (The Private Lives of Elizabeth and Essex), but was tackling the character again, this time actually shaving part of her head to get the right look. Never one to cotton to (most of) her female costars, prickly Davis was less than impressed by the young and beautiful Collins. Decades later, Davis would sniff at Joan again because of her revealing dress at a Night of 100 Stars benefit concert at which they shared a dressing room.

When Marilyn Monroe declined the lead role in The Girl in the Red Velvet Swing, Collins was given a massive boost in receiving it, even earning a spot on the cover of Life magazine. Based on a true incident, she played Evelyn Nesbit, a performer who is involved with both Ray Milland and Farley Granger, which leads to jealousy, murder and scandal. (This same story was told in small part in the film and the Broadway musical Ragtime.) About 30 years later, Joan would appear on Life's cover again, this time for a spread she did dressed as iconic women through the ages (including Cleopatra.)

In 1956, 20th Century remade the 1939 classic The Women as a musical. In this exceedingly colorful and (deliberately?) garish film called The Opposite Sex, Collins inherited the juicy role of Crystal Allen, a gold-digging schemer (played in the original by Joan Crawford) who steals June Allyson’s husband (played by no less than Leslie Nielsen!) In this rendition, Allen is a showgirl and Joan takes part in a hooty production number featuring islanders and bananas. Norma Shearer verbally confronted Crawford in a boutique in the original, but this time Allyson got to slap Collins and when she did, it was with such force that Collins lost an earring and had an imprint on her cheek afterward! Though no one thinks that this outdoes the ’39 version, it remains a campy and zesty affair. Years later, Dynasty fans would chuckle at the fact that her character’s name was Crystal.

From here, Collins began appearing in more serious fare for a while. She did the grungy drama The Wayward Bus, based on a John Steinbeck novel, then flew to Barbados to take part in the all-star soap opera Island in the Sun, all about interracial love in the tropics and featuring James Mason, Harry Belafonte, Stephen Boyd, Joan Fontaine and Dorothy Dandridge. The controversial movie only fared marginally well, with the South, in particular, tending to stay away from it.

Joan was thrilled to win the lead role in a Roberto Rossellini film and be cast opposite Richard Burton, but just before Sea Wife got underway, Rossellini changed his mind and the movie wound up being directed by an associate producer with limited experience. Playing a shipwrecked nun, Collins offered up a clean-scrubbed, virtually makeup-less appearance.

Next was a minor effort with Robert Wagner called Stopover Tokyo that the pair declared should be titled Stop Overacting! The following year, she played a caring rancher to Gregory Peck’s vengeful character in The Bravados. Following the rape and murder of his wife, Peck sought the outlaws (including Stephen Boyd) out one by one while Collins fretted on the sidelines and watched his little daughter.

In 1958, Paul Newman and Joanne Woodward filmed the loopy domestic vs military comedy Rally ‘Round the Flag, Boys! and personally requested for Joan to play the saucy and uninhibited neighbor Angela, who has her eye on Newman. Joan and Paul have a wild, drunken scene in which they shimmy and dance amusingly and eventually flop around all over the room. It was a rare moment of true mirth in an otherwise forced film.

Henry Hathaway’s caper flick Seven Thieves starred Edward G. Robinson, Rod Steiger and Eli Wallach along with Collins as a distraction. She trained with an actual stripper in order to get the moves down pat for her character, who disrobes as part of the big scheme, though the better part of her striptease didn’t make it past the censors.

She then portrayed the famed Jewish Biblical heroine in Esther and the King against Richard Egan. Joan’s Esther seemed more a testament to the powers of AquaNet than to the Almighty, but the film has its moments.

Around this time, Joan became heavily involved with Warren Beatty and eventually the pair became engaged, even going so far as to pose for an official engagement portrait. He was obsessive about several things, according to her, including endless vitamins and endless sex (seven times a day.) At the time, she was an established star and he was little more than Shirley MacLaine’s little brother, but Splendor in the Grass would soon change that. Joan became pregnant (what are the odds?!) and not too long after he nudged her towards an abortion, their differences outweighed their bliss and they ended it.

In ’62, Bob Hope and Bing Crosby returned for yet another of their “Road” movies, Road to Hong Kong. Longtime leading lady Dorothy Lamour was brushed aside into a cameo appearance in order to feature Joan and it wound up being the last such outing. It would be five years before Joan filmed another Hollywood movie. It wasn’t so much that her career was tanking as that she had found another husband, singer-actor Anthony Newley, and was living with him in England and planning a family.

During this time, Joan looked perhaps her most chic, at one point sporting a fetching, mod, Vidal Sassoon-esque haircut, yet she was hardly doing any acting work to speak of. She played David Janssen’s estranged wife in the star-heavy Warning Shot, but most of her other work was in TV guest roles.

She does have the distinction, however, of having played on several of the most iconic 60s series ever. She did an episode of The Man From U.N.C.L.E and then worked on one of the highest quality episodes that Star Trek ever offered. She played Edith Keeler, a social worker from the past who Captain Kirk falls in love with, but who is slated to die in an accident. The appearance earned her a place in the sizeable Trekker following and she is still approached about it today, 40 + years later.

On Batman, she got to play a villain (something almost everyone was salivating to do during the show’s heyday.) The Siren was a gorgeous woman who played a harp and emitted a hypnotic tone from her voice when she chose to use it. It was campy and silly, but, again, it’s one of those jobs that is still remembered today by series fans. She rounded out the decade with a featured guest role on Mission: Impossible, working closely with Peter Graves.

Husband Newley found fidelity rather difficult and when he wrote and directed the fanciful, yet autobiographically themed, Can Heironymus Merkin Ever Forget Mercy Humppe and Find True Happiness?, in which he also cast Joan and their two children, the wheels started to come off the marriage. All about a man carrying on an affair with a blonde called Mercy Humppe while married to Polyester Poontang (Collins), the indulgent work severely strained the couple’s relationship. This shot from the film could almost serve as a flashback sequence for Krystle, Blake and Alexis on Dynasty! Ha!

Following the divorce, Collins began working more steadily, but mostly in low-budget projects that were not worthy of her, and often containing horror or sexually suggestive elements. She did get to work with Orson Welles in 1972 in his Hallmark Hall of Fame TV adaptation of The Man Who Came to Dinner, but he read everything off of cue cards, thus diminishing her experience with him tremendously.

Though married again, by now, to businessman Ron Kass, the mother of two was finding it difficult to get by, despite occasional guest roles on series like Baretta, Police Woman and Starsky and Hutch. For a while, she even drove to the unemployment office and collected checks. What was probably a career low point for her came when she agreed to star in a Z-grade adaptation of H.G. Wells’ Empire of the Ants. She played a snippy land development promoter in the Florida Everglades whose trolley full of prospective buyers winds up as snack food for a colony of gigantic (and papier-mâché) ants! Conditions during the swampy, hot and filthy filming were abysmal.

Of all people, it was her little sister Jackie who managed to come to the rescue of Joan’s tattered career. (Check out the sisters at the left, as they appeared in the mid-70s!) A rather rebellious young lady who was tossed out of school at sixteen, she would eventually pen (to date) 27 sultry and successful novels, almost always about the wealthy and the sexually absorbed. One of her books, The Stud, became a film starring Joan and it was a wild success, thanks in no small part to her brief nude scenes and her erotic presence in general.

She played rich, seductive Fontaine Khaled who has a fling with the title character. The sequel to The Stud, also based on a Jackie Collins book, The Bitch, was a little bit trashier than the first film and Joan later regretted making it, especially when people, especially advertisers, seemed to be equating Joan Collins with “The Bitch.”

Back during her stint at 20th Century Fox, Collins had been in place to play Cleopatra in the film of the same name. She filmed a screen test for it and began to prepare herself for the showcase of a role. However, it was eventually decided to ratchet up the budget and go with a much bigger star, namely Elizabeth Taylor, so Collins was out (though she was almost back in a second time when Liz fell deathly ill during initial filming.) Many years later, on an episode of Fantasy Island, Joan would finally play Cleo and it would be a fortuitous experience for more than one reason.

Aaron Spelling was in the midst of producing Dynasty, a prime time soap opera about a wealthy oil business family in Denver, Colorado. The abbreviated first season was slow to catch on with viewers and so it was determined to bring on lead character Blake Carrington’s long estranged first wife Alexis. Everyone and her grandmother was considered for the plum role. Some turned it down. Some demanded too much money. Sophia Loren was chief in the running, but finally said no.

Spelling’s wife Candy saw Joan as Cleopatra on Fantasy Island and suggested her for the part. Despite what should have been a no-brainer, many executives at the network did not want her in the role, feeling she was either not famous enough or else simply “reeked of the 50s” as she would later remark.

However, almost from the moment she entered the series, dressed in a wide-brimmed white hat with a veil and sunglasses, and proceeded to try to bury Blake on the witness stand during his murder trial, both she and the show were a hit.

Alexis was a villainess extraordinaire and Collins sank her teeth into every nasty line (and her dialogue was always full of them) while showing off increasingly extravagant ensembles by resident designer Nolan Miller, a man known for catering to the legendary divas of Hollywood’s golden age. Collins and the other ladies of the series ushered in a whole new era of over-the-top glamour that included furs, sequins, stoles, hats and, of course, shoulder pads.

An onscreen rivalry was established between Alexis and the current Mrs. Carrington Krystle (Linda Evans), which would eventually seep into the ladies’ real life relationship, though both of them strove to keep things professional on the set. They were simply two very different types of women and had no desire to keep company with one another. Rugged Linda enjoyed the celebrated catfights while Joan preferred to do battle with her tongue. Decades after the cancellation of Dynasty, the ladies would reunite in a touring production of the play Legends and it was, in many ways, a fiasco, the stars still not getting along particularly well. It’s amusing to compare these publicity photos from the two projects, noting what poor Linda did to her face (and though Joan hasn’t subjected herself to all the procedures that Linda has, she is hideously and preposterously airbrushed in it.)

Joan’s time on Dynasty was punctuated by many experiences including helping her daughter by Kass recover from a harrowing accident that had left her comatose for a while, an eventual divorce from Kass, many commercial endorsements, sideline TV-movie and miniseries deals, salary disputes, a much-publicized spread (at age 50) in Playboy magazine with pictures taken by George Hurrell of all people, a hellacious (but thankfully brief) marriage to Swedish gold-digger Peter Holm, a Golden Globe for Best Actress on a TV Drama Series and any number of other dizzying experiences as she rode the wave.

When it was all over, she took a little while off to finally rest. This didn’t last long, however, and she was soon back in the swim of things, working in every conceivable medium. She was guest-starring on such varied series as Roseanne, The Nanny and Will & Grace. Recalling her Princess Nellifer days, she had a cameo in Donny Osmond’s videotaped version of Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat. She also spent a six-month stint on the daytime soap Guiding Light. She is the author of over a dozen books, both fictional and non-fictional. Her landmark case against Random House Publishing (in which she was awarded over a million dollars for a book that was never published) is in The Guinness Book of World Records and made her a hero among mistreated authors everywhere.

She acted in a deliberately campy (and pretty rotten) TV movie called These Old Broads that placed her in the midst of several other performers whose lives had crossed with hers and each other’s. Peter Graves played her husband, her almost sister-in-law Shirley MacLaine was on board and Elizabeth Taylor, who inherited Cleopatra, appeared as well. Debbie Reynolds, whose husband Taylor stole, also starred, though the hatchet had long since been buried. Collins once stated after being called “The Poor Man’s Elizabeth Taylor” that “the poor man didn’t do too badly after all!”

Most notable for her personally, though, were the three following things: She got to play Amanda in Private Lives on Broadway, thus fulfilling two of her lifelong dreams at once. She was decorated with an O.B.E. by Queen Elizabeth II. She met and married (in 2002) a handsome man, Percy Gibson, almost half her age (and, in fact, the same age as her own son!) who has filled her days with almost unimaginable joy. The pair is frequently photographed together, either at industry events or just on vacation, and always look as if they are having the time of their lives. And that’s the thing. Joan has never lost her sense of humor. When prodded by journalists about her marriage to a man 32 years her junior and whether it worried her or not, her typical response was, “If he dies, he dies!”

A bizarre rumor has spread over the years that underneath her ever-present wigs, Joan Collins is bald. Heaven only knows where it began, but it isn’t true. She has thin, fine hair that really won’t do anything and she simply prefers wigs for their variety, convenience and style. Here is a picture from 2009 in which her own hair is on view. She has appeared quite a few times with it visible, but Joan isn’t Joan without the full monty of voluminous hair.

It would be hard to find a more active woman of 76 as she continues to globe trot and appear on talk shows or on series (even hosting a British program on fashion last year, something she knows a great deal about), always looking like a million bucks and, as she has declared, thanks to her own hard work. Joan was always the one to PAY alimony, never accept it. Her life has contained countless ups and downs and she’s been exceedingly frank about her experiences in her two autobiographies Past Imperfect and Second Act. As ought to be rather obvious, she has always held me in her considerable grip, ever since I watched her in Arthur Hailey’s The Moneychangers as a child.

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