Still in Her Prime – Joan Collins at 80

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We recently went to see Joan Collins’ one woman multi-media bio-pic stage show, ‘One Night With Joan’ at the Lowry. The title, is, of course, reminiscent of Smiley Lewis’s famous ‘One Night (of Sin)’ (1956). It hints at, alternately, a night in which all desires are fulfilled, and a one night stand… 

Our night with Joan is the nearest we’ll ever get to Hollywood – and even this is Hollywood strained through the twilight of memory. 

After becoming a Rank starlet, Joan Collins entered Hollywood back in the 1950s, starring opposite many of the giants of the era and pursuing a diverse career that encompassed a variety of roles in film and television. Her talent lay in playing to the emerging archetype of the independent woman – albeit it one with a bit of bite. Joan’s stock character was the vengeance mistress – the kitten with claws: mousy, glamorous, objectified… then castrating – a screen persona that allowed her to deftly negotiate an era of changing gender norms that spanned from 1950s to the 1980s, a time where villainous roles for women shifted from tempting femme fatales to ruthless and ultra-materialist superwomen. The famous late 1970s Cinzano television advertisements are representative of the transition.

As the classy face of Cinzano, Joan was both objectified (her stooge role as the wet-bloused dolly bird) and simmering (as the diva who didn’t suffer fools gladly); it was as if she as recruited to give vent to intelligent female anger at those unreconstructed male chauvinists who changed too slowly for each new phase of liberation.

Though Joan acted with Hollywood’s A-list, her career always seemed hard to place, its big question being, “Was she a star too?” Even though she had her own star on the Hollywood walk of fame, evidently, there was always a sense of reputation by association. She had to flaunt her Hollywood glamour harder than some to pay the bills. Though Joan proved herself to be a fine character actress, an able young starlet and an ensemble player, she never quite attained the stature of some of Hollywood’s leading ladies – until, perhaps, she played the waspish Alexis in the glossy TV soap smash, Dynasty: a show that defined the ethical issues of the 1980s like no other. It’s no surprise, then, that Andy Warhol took pictures of Joan in the mid 1980s. Warhol’s Collins is bleached blank: glamorous, camp and trashy all at the same time, as if epitomizing the competitive individualism and moral compromise of the whole era in just one face. Yet it is actually the way that Joan’s current celebrity persona incorporates her rollercoaster career path that is interesting to me. On one hand, she was the poster girl for female independence, running her own (show) business. On the other, she has had to sail her ship through some pretty choppy waters, doing whatever was necessary to get by in style.

In a stage show that initially replaced audience contact with plenty of well-polished quips, Joan proudly recounted every compromise that she had to make to maintain a career. She has done everything from playing struggling housewives to lace-corseted libertines, from acting opposite Paul Newman and Bette Davis to fending off giant ants. Joan seemed in her element in those infamous late 1970s softcore features, but equally happy making trouble in soap heaven… never mind those recent Snickers adverts.

Collins has even had at least a couple of brief flirtations with popular music, duetting with Bing Crosby and Bob Hope in ‘Let’s Not Be’ (1962) and creating a spoken word version of John Lennon’s ‘Imagine’ (1983) that sounded like a track from Amanda Lear or a Pet Shop Boy’s album:

All of that has now gone into the blender of history. At 80, Joan Collins is not just a woman who has ridden the vicissitudes of show business; she is one who now uses her unique combination of past triumphs and tragedies as the basis for her current celebrity persona. Her precarious perch somewhere between last of the golden era starlets and the archetypal working actress has afforded her two lines of approach:

First, she uses her ordinariness to give us a window on the sordid realities of the glamorous world of Hollywood. In a society where everyone is treated as commodity (available labour power) and virtually everyone has aspects of their working lives that they don’t like, we all do what we can for our career. Joan is just like us, only she resides in the rarified climes of media land.

Second, she has therefore consolidated her gay audience by showing that she is not only a diva, but a survivor. When she arrives on stage looking decades younger than her age, in skin tight, spangly leggings, the audience applauds and one man even gives her an immediate standing ovation. Some of the questions from the floor centre on her diet and fitness regime. In the interval a minority of other women offer a surprising number of catty comments with a hint of collective jealousy in their tone.

Nowadays Joan Collins primarily lives off her diva reputation. Most of us will feel lucky to be healthy and alive at that age, let alone looking so great… If life’s aims were purely cosmetic, by now Joan would be reigning monarch.