What was Jackie Collins hiding beneath the mask of glitz and glamour? It turns out, an awful lot
Glamour was at the centre of Lady Boss: The Jackie Collins Story (BBC Two), both as fact and concept. The feature-length documentary was gorged on glitz and glitter as it charted the ascent of Joan’s younger sister from ugly duckling to Hollywood swan and ultimately Beverly Hills Books Queen. But its masterstroke was to temper the imagery with an interrogation of glamour itself – what’s behind the mask? How much of what seems appealing is fake? What are people hiding behind those veneered smiles and Hello!-perfect homes?
Jackie Collins, a glamour queen, was hiding an awful lot. Growing up in Britain her father, a high-powered agent, was domineering and cruel. Her older sister Joan was the next big thing in Hollywood. Jackie tried and failed to become an actress too, had surgery to "fix" her nose and teeth and was paranoid about her weight. At one point in the 50s daddy sent her off on the variety circuit, where people just asked her questions about Joan. Her response was to create a character called "Jackie Collins", armour her with shoulder pads and leopard-skin, and shield herself with a carapace of untouchable opulence. It was her best, and most successful invention.
No one in Lady Boss, not her literary agent nor the multitude of self-appointed "best" friends who appeared as talking heads, nor even Jackie Collins herself, said that Jackie Collins was a good writer. What the film made clear, however, was that she was a brilliant author, where being an author meant being a brand and a celebrity as much as someone who puts one sentence after another.
The staggering success of Collins’s books in the Eighties was a triumph of marketing, not of literature, and the fact that she used to attend her own marketing meetings (most writers send in the manuscript and then hide under a duvet for the next year) was one of several telling gems filmmaker Laura Fairrie unearthed. Part of that marketing was recasting her bonkbusters as triumphs of female emancipation. As she would tell anyone who would listen on punishing publicity tours, in every case the lead character is a woman who starts down on her uppers and ends up taking control. The contention in this film was that Jackie Collins had done exactly the same.
The documentary cleverly played with that life-imitating-art merry-go-round by echoing the beats of a Collins epic novel. Jackie’s fall and rise was mapped against Joan’s rise and fall and rise again (and I had forgotten that Joan published a few dire novels of her own when the acting dried up). Really bad husbands – drug addicts, abusers, chumps – were followed by really, really good ones. Who then died, suddenly. High triumph followed gut-wrenching tragedy and Jackie met the two the same – with another book, an appearance on a talk show and fourteen cans of Elnette. The diaries, cinefilm and kodachrome footage, most of it made and then secreted away by Jackie, an inveterate observer, provided the colour. And what colour – we viewers were entranced in a bygone Hollywood while simultaneously learning how much of it was a sham.
The irony is that Jackie Collins lived an entire life, and built a career, on maintaining that illusion. Glamour was her subject matter and her façade. Take that façade away, as this film so brilliantly did, and you find a woman who needed it to survive.