Thursday, December 22, 2016

LIZ SMITH: The Long, Long Road to "Dynasty"

by Liz Smith & Denis Ferrara

Joan Collins, Survivor — The Long, Long Road to "Dynasty"

“I NEVER chased fame!”

So said Joan Collins. Of course Joan said this when fame — real fame! — had finally caught up with her, during her spectacular reign on TV’s “Dynasty.” Once one is that world-famous, one can say anything convincingly.

London-born Joan never fails to remind people that she began her career as a student of the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art. She asserts, “I came into this business to be a theater actress.” Yes, indeed. And if you have ever had the pleasure of seeing Joan onstage, she is as vivid and striking as her image on screens, large and small.
Joan Collins (right) in her stage debut in “A Doll’s House.”
Miss Collins made her 1946 stage debut in Ibsen’s “A Doll’s House” as ... a boy.  In 1954, she starred at The Queen’s Theater as Sabrina in Thornton Wilder’s “The Skin of Our Teeth.” But between those significant appearances she had been signed by the British film studio, Rank.

She was first seen onscreen in “Lady Godiva Rides Again.” British audiences were alert to her charms.  Miss Collins was even more alert.  She complained that Rank — and British cinema in general — didn’t build up its female players. “They concentrate on the men.” Remember, now she wasn’t chasing fame. She was just concerned about the British cinema.
Joan on set with with fellow starlet Madeleine Mona in “Lady Godiva Rides Again," 1951.
American film studios did build  female stars. One of the biggest — 20th Century Fox — got a look at Collins and snapped her up. Fox was most famous for its blonde stars — Shirley Temple, Alice Faye, Betty Grable, and the studio’s Ultimate Blonde, Marilyn Monroe.  However, Fox had also nurtured the career of the darkly luscious Linda Darnell.  By 1954, Darnell — not yet 30! — was considered over the hill, and Collins, fresh and in her twenties, was brought in.

But before Fox could try to mold her, Warner Bros put Joan into “Land of The Pharaohs.”  It was a typical sex and sand tale that was elevated by her outrageous posturing as the murderous, avaricious second wife of Pharaoh.  This was a fully-fleshed early peek at Joan’s later persona as “Dynasty’s” Alexis Carrington-Colby-Dexter-Whatever.
Joan’s character, Nellifer the Egyptian, was Too Much in every way — too much beauty, too much bitchery, too much evil (she kills a child!)  She flashes her enormous eyes, she flares her elegant nostrils, she inhales — a lot. It’s a performance for the ages, and Collins goes for broke, even garnering a soupcon of sympathy as she is sealed up alive in her late husband’s pyramid. (“I don’t want to die!  I don’t want to die!” she screams as others condemned to the same fate, look on scornfully.)
Fox plopped her opposite ornery Bette Davis in “The Virgin Queen.” This, by Joan’s account, was a terrifying experience!

She was then cast as Evelyn Nesbit in “The Girl In The Red Velvet Swing,” a film based on a real life turn-of-the-century sex-and murder scandal. The movie had been earmarked for Marilyn Monroe, but Monroe was off on strike, studying at the Actor’s Studio.  So Joan got to swing opposite Ray Milland and Farley Granger. She was fine, but not as convincing in her compromised role as a girl led astray as she had been as a vamp of antiquity.  She was at her best being brassy and bold. 
In a loan-out to MGM, Collins had the opportunity to be both, and gave another nod to her future career as an over-the-top villain, playing Crystal Allen in the semi-musical remake of “The Women,” re-named “The Opposite Sex.”

If Collins had a second’s hesitation about stepping into a role Joan Crawford had made famous, it didn’t show. She is outrageously enjoyable, bad to the bone, the best thing in the film.  Perhaps some of her co-stars knew it.  When June Allyson and Collins came to shoot the famous dressing room scene, originally a slow-simmer showdown between Crawford and Norma Shearer — the Collins version came with the added impact of a slap. “If you’re dressing for Steven, not that one, it’s too obvious,” says June in her husky, near-tearful croak.  Collins smirks and replies, “When Steven doesn’t like what I’m wearing, I take it off.”  Bam!  June Allyson gives Joan a slap that sends her earring flying!  It looks real.  It was! 
Back in the 20th Century Fox fold, they just didn’t know what to do with Joan.  She was wasted in “The Wayward Bus” (Jayne Mansfield’s wayward bust got all the press) ... disappeared among the fronds in “Island In The Sun” ... was a ravishing, improbable nun opposite Richard Burton in “The Sea Wife” ... an over-dressed airline receptionist in “Stopover Toyko” ... lost in “The Bravados” with Gregory Peck. The studio system was collapsing and Joan’s career along with it. (Her personal life, once free of her first husband, actor Maxwell Reed, was more enjoyable. Fun romances with Sydney Chaplin, Arthur Lowe, Jr. and — later — Warren Beatty — filled the columns.)
Joan’s prime Hollywood years were about to end, but not before she gave one of her most winning performances, in “Rally’ Round the Flag, Boys.”  The stars were Paul Newman and Joanne Woodward as a suburban couple, but it was Joan, as the wacky, witty, sex-crazed next-door neighbor who wiped them off the screen. Had studio heads been paying attention they’d have seen Joan was that rare commodity — a beautiful woman who is also very funny.  This role also showed off Joan’s remarkable physical energy — an attribute she enjoys to this day.
Collins had been screen-tested in 1959 for Fox’s “Cleopatra” when the film was a reasonably-budgeted potboiler, and Collins a reasonably salaried contract player.  But producer Walter Wagner wanted something bigger — he got it in the shape of box-office queen Elizabeth Taylor, who demanded an unprecedented million dollars to sail down the Nile.  She got that. When Taylor almost died of pneumonia, Joan, along with such improbable replacements as Kim Novak, Susan Hayward and Marilyn Monroe were put on notice.  Taylor recovered — as usual — and went on to shock the world with another adulterous scandal, capturing her married co-star Richard Burton.

But Joan’s screen-test survives.  She would have been an amusingly dishy Queen of the Nile.
By 1962 Joan was appearing opposite Bob Hope and Bing Crosby in a tired finale to their great series of comedies, “The Road to Hong Kong.”  It was the road to no-where for Joan.

The following year, Collins married composer, actor Anthony Newley. He was not an easy person, but very talented.  They did have two children, Tara and Sasha, and Joan slowed down a bit to parent.
But, as Joan would say years later, “I never met a man who could look after me.  I don’t need a husband, I need a wife!” And so she worked ... ”La Congiuntura” ... ”Hard Times for a Princess” ... ”Warning Shot” ... Subterfuge” ... Three In the Cellar” ... ”The Executioner” ... ”Fear In the Night” ... ”Quest for Love” ... ”Terror From Under the Stairs” ... ”Tales from The Crypt” ... ”Tales that Witness Madness” ... ”The Bawdy Adventures of Tom Jones” ... and the most infamous in this string of unworthy projects, “Empire of the Ants.”  Yes, Joan Collins — still a beauty, still vital and charismatic, but not even a blip on Hollywood’s radar — gets eaten by a giant ant.  (This was a long way from plush red velvet swings or slugging it out with June Allyson!)
During this fallow period, Joan and Anthony Newley divorced, and she married yet again, to Ronald Kass, with whom she had another child, Katyana. (Joan won her spurs as a devoted mother; all her children adore her.)

Careerwise, Joan had a bit of an upswing appearing in campy film versions of novels written by her prolific novelist sister, Jackie — “The Bitch” and “The Stud.” The movies were not much of anything except exploitive, but Joan, moving toward her late forties, looked terrif.  The films made money in Europe, but in the USA, the titles provoked her old 1950’s audience to wonder, “Is Joan Collins doing porn?!”
In 1979 Joan did appear in a major American film, “Sunburn.” This was supposed to be the launching pad for Farrah Fawcett’s big-screen career.  It was not.  However, Joan’s appearance as a daffy, sexy, mad lady-of-leisure was splendid.  The performance recalled her “Rally ‘Round the Flag, Boys” days, with an extra edge. Despite a dreadful series of films, Joan Collins had honed her gifts.  She was better than ever.
With Charles Grodin in the 1979 film "Sunburn."
Finally, in 1981, Joan was offered a role (one season only) in the struggling prime time soap “Dynasty.”  She would play Alexis Carrington, pathologically vengeful ex-wife of Denver tycoon Blake Carrington — now married to the saintly Krystal.  Joan, in an overpowering hat, a veil and a witness stand scene that went through the roof , put “Dynasty” on the map.

Collins was an instant sensation.    Joan put an extraordinary investment in both the dramatic and highly comedic elements of Alexis.  Her intensity was startling.  With her heavy maquillage and black tresses, you couldn’t miss Joan Collins.    Soon the writers developed a fantastic motif for Joan/Alexis. She had her hip-waggling, swaggering exits and entrances, constant nibbling on dainty bits of food, and sudden surges of emotion; in an instant she could go from bitchy repartee to a towering rage, and back again.
At the age of 49, “Dynasty” made Joan the great star she should have been at 25.  She was an iconic symbol of sex-appeal ripening with maturity, and all-round female empowerment. And, thanks to Nolan Miller’s surreal fashions, a stunning example of  personality trumping shoulder pads. (The other women of “Dynasty” seemed devoured by their clothes; Joan was the picture of comfort and relaxed élan, no matter what they threw on her.)

“Dynasty” became a national — an international! — obsession — and it continued as such until 1989.  During those years Joan herself was often confused with the character she played. Indeed, she was witty and could be exceptionally sharp-tongued.  And, once opportunity knocked, Joan — like Alexis — made a financial killing.  Collins worked every possible angle — including holding out for more money from “Dynasty” producer Aaron Spelling — to ensure her security. She deserved every cent.
But Joan was a vulnerable woman, under the paint and wigs. She allowed herself to be conned by a slick playboy and minor pop singer, Peter Holm.  Collins and Holm married in 1985 — Joan and Ronald Kass had divorced in ’83, as her stardom zoomed. The pair were battling in court by 1987.  Holm made a spectacle of himself, sued Collins for a fortune but made off only with the pre-nup sum of $1 million.  Joan came out of it breezily.
Eventually, not even Joan could save a show that required her to say, relentlessly, “I hate you Blake, I hate you.  And I’ll destroy you if it’s the last thing I do!”  By the time “Dynasty” was put out of its misery, Joan had made a fortune with plush TV movies, fragrances, fashions, and lord knows what else.  Between 1978 and 2007, Joan also collected millions writing sixteen — count ‘em — sixteen books!  Memoirs, bodice-ripping fiction, health and beauty tomes.  You name it, Joan Collins has tried it. (And when Random House tried to renege on an advance, saying Joan’s prose was sub-standard she fought and won, with a dramatic display on the witness stand that would have done Alexis proud.)
In 1991, she appeared on Broadway in Noel Coward’s “Private Lives” ... gave a fabulous performance in the 1995 movie “In the Bleak Midwinter” ... guest starred on dozens of series and sitcoms and, basically, retained the image and stardom she achieved late in life, loving every bit of it. 

In 2002, Joan married the adorable Percy Gibson, actor and stage manager.  There are a few years difference in their ages, but having seen the two of them together, I’d say ... she’s younger. (She is a grandmother three times over, but I won’t tell if you won’t.)  She radiates good heath, and moves like a teenager.
I have two true-life tales of Joan, both of which reveal the woman beneath the image. In 2000, Joan appeared in the TV movie “These Old Broads,” with Debbie Reynolds, Shirley MacLaine and (in what was little more than a cameo) Elizabeth Taylor.  I’d heard, from what I considered a good source, that Joan had made unkind remarks about Elizabeth, who was in declining health, and that Elizabeth had countered back with her own wisecracks. Imagine my surprise on the day the item appeared — Joan herself called my office, weeping, sobbing ... “Liz, I would never say such things about Elizabeth! ... etc.”  More stunning was a call from Elizabeth! She said, darkly, “Liz, Joan and I are old friends. I know she’d never say those things, and I know for sure I’d never respond, even if she did.” Needless to say, I retracted. (This was a gentle chiding from La Liz, but still enough to freeze my blood!)
The other Joan story I cherish is from the same period.  I’d attended a special screening of “These Old Broads.” Joan was there.  In the film (it was an awful thing, despite Carrie Fisher’s script), Joan’s character, an actress looking to make a comeback, performs a full split. Athletic and impressive. At the cocktail reception after, Joan arrived, wearing  a Chanel skirt, silk blouse and a little fur shrug. She looked divine. I said, “Joan, you were so funny in this thing, but who did that split for you?”
Peering at me through eyelashes thick as a toothbrush, Joan said, “Nobody did it for me.  I did that myself.”

“Oh, come on, honey, it’s just us. That’s not possible!”

Never challenge a woman who has had to live down being eaten by a giant ant.  Joan tossed away her sleek evening bag, shrugged off her shrug, and went into a full split right there!  Better yet, in one graceful movement she was back on her feet.
Before I could utter a word, Joan had gathered herself together, and was at the buffet table, picking through olives in her best don’t mess-with-me Alexis mode. 

Joan once said, “I have always tried to live with enthusiasm and pleasure.”  Although an iron will and the discipline of a Marine were also required, those are the defining qualities of Joan as I know her — enthusiastic for life and experience, pleasured with what her talent and vitality has brought her, vividly intelligent. (There’s not an ounce of false modesty in her, which is quite refreshing!) 

She had to wait a long time to get what she deserved.  But nobody has appreciated fame more than Joan Collins.
Contact Liz here.