‘Dame Joan Collins Has Seen It All’

By Keaton Bell

September 19th 2022 …

For someone who has every press clipping, talk show appearance, and magazine cover with her visage neatly archived in the basement of her London estate, Dame Joan Collins doesn’t consider herself a particularly nostalgic person.

“I don’t think I live in the past,” she recently told Vogue. “Although I do have a lot of fun anecdotes about it.”

In This Is Joan Collins, premiering this week on Turner Classic Movies, the British icon opens up like never before. Having already published six memoirs (with a seventh in the works), Collins is hardly a stranger to sharing the dishier details of her life. But while a number of production companies had approached her over the years about making a documentary, she had little interest in watching old costars sing her praises.

“I didn’t just want a bunch of talking heads saying, ‘I sure loved making that picture with Joanie in nineteen so-and-so,’” Collins says. “How dull would that be?”

Collins with employees at Idlewild International Airport in 1956.  Photo: Getty Image

The only star in This Is Joan Collins is—appropriately—Collins herself. Making extensive use of her aforementioned archive, the documentary follows her one-of-a-kind journey from working with Bette Davis and Gregory Peck as a rising Hollywood starlet, to acting opposite killer ants as a washed-up B-movie queen, to becoming an even bigger star than before as Alexis Carrington on the ’80s megahit Dynasty. Narrated by Collins in peak, bitingly funny form, it’s one of the most purely entertaining celebrity documentaries in recent memory.

For audiences less familiar with Collins’s biography, This Is Joan Collins also shows just how intertwined she is with Hollywood history. Touted as everything from “Britain’s bad girl” to “England’s answer to Ava Gardner” upon her arrival in America in the 1950s, Collins was quickly signed under contract by 20th Century Fox and, at the peak of her film career, fronted big-budget titles like The Girl in the Red Velvet Swing and The Opposite Sex. Both in the documentary and in casual conversation, Collins has a way of tossing off asides that make you sit up a little straighter: “I met Joan Crawford once and she was terrifying—and not beautiful at all,” for instance, or, “When I got engaged to Warren…” as in Beatty.

A publicity photograph of Collins from the early ’50s.  Photo: Getty Images

Collins has long understood that subtlety is a waste of time and flavor. Ahead of the U.S. premiere of This Is Joan Collins (which will be available to stream on Watch TCM through October 20), the grande dame caught up with Vogue to chat about how the documentary came together and share stories from seven decades in show business.

Vogue: You’ve told your life story from various angles in your memoirs, so why make a documentary?

Dame Joan Collins: Well, I thought somebody was gonna do it eventually, so it might as well be me. Several people have already made documentaries about me who just went to the filing cabinets of tabloid papers and pulled out the most tawdry clippings. But these two wonderful women, the producer [Karen Steyn] and the director [Clare Beavan], came to me with their offer, and I thought their ideas sounded original. They said, “We want you to be the one to sit and watch the film once we’ve done the final cut,” so that I could make any comments I like about the documentary or my life. We spent about six months talking through the ins and outs of my life. I gave them total access to my archives, filled with thousands of photographs and hundreds of hours of footage of my films and things like my Johnny Carson appearances.

Collins gracing the cover of Picture Post magazine in 1954. Photo: Getty Images

How was the experience of going through your archives and reliving so many of your memories and experiences?

I still feel like that 20-year old girl leaving her family and friends 7,000 miles away to go chase her dreams in Hollywood. I’d never been before, and didn’t know a single soul except for a makeup artist on one of my first films, Land of the Pharaohs. I was not aware at that time of how brave that really was. When I look back at all those parties and premieres I went to, I think about how I wasn’t quite aware of how extraordinary it was that I got to work with Bette Davis or be the lead in a Fox picture. I just sorta got on with it—that’s always been the way I live. I just get on with it.

At one point in the documentary you say, “If Fox couldn’t get Susan Hayward or Gene Tierney, they got me.” How would you characterize your position in Hollywood then?

I never really analyzed it, to be quite honest. But if you had a good figure and a certain look in your eyes, you were immediately characterized as a vamp or a glamour girl. None of that ever really bothered me because I always knew who I was.

Collins at a party in Los Angeles in 1956.  Photo: Getty Images

You also discuss your experiences navigating predatory men within the industry. The “golden age of Hollywood” still has this false sense of purity around it, but how commonplace was sexual harassment in that era?

It was endemic. Any young woman coming to Hollywood at that time probably expected to experience some kind of sexual harassment. I had a very smart theatrical agent for a father who warned me about men in show business. I think I was able to cope quite well, but I had a couple of close calls with producers who were notoriously dreadful toward young girls. I met Marilyn Monroe when I first went to Gene Kelly’s house, and she warned me to be careful of the “wolves at the studios.” I told her, “Oh, I think I can cope with wolves; I’ve been in the English film business since I was 17!” She just looked at me and said, “Well, these studio bosses are different, honey. If they don’t get what they want, they’ll drop your contract without a second thought.” It was unavoidable.

Did you ever feel like your career was tampered with because you refused these producers’ advances?

Oh, I know perfectly well that it was. One of my big bosses at the studio was very cunning. He cornered me at a party once and said, “If you’re nice to me, you can have your pick of the litter at Fox.” I just laughed and said, “That’s a very nice offer, but I’m here with my agent, so I’ll just go talk to him about it.” He was shocked. What young women had to put up with in show business was absolutely repulsive, so I’m so glad that #MeToo has come along and tamped it down at least a bit.

The documentary mentions a lot of the A-list names you’ve encountered throughout your career. Was there one in particular that lived up to every glamorous expectation you had of them? 

Elizabeth Taylor. I met her very shortly after I came to America, when she was going out with Mike Todd. I had dinner with her and my boyfriend at the time, who was a friend of hers, and I just thought she was fantastic. Not only stunningly beautiful but also so funny and down-to-earth. She was one of the greats. I’ve always admired her, and I was honored to have done her last movie with her.

Collins, Elizabeth Taylor, Shirley MacLaine, and Debbie Reynolds in These Old Broads, a made-for-TV movie (penned by Carrie Fisher) that aired on ABC in 2001. Photo: Getty Images

I was going to ask about These Old Broads in a bit—it’s probably my favorite film of yours.

It’s cute, isn’t it? But I kept telling Shirley MacLaine, who was more involved with the production, “Why are you calling it These Old Broads? Why not These Fabulous Broads?!” I’ve always been told that the word old is a big no-no for cinemagoers and TV viewers. Plus I think we all look pretty good in that film. And it was so much fun to make.

There was so much shared Hollywood history on that set between you, MacLaine, Taylor, and Debbie Reynolds. Do any particularly fond memories come to mind?

Well, I’d known Debbie for a long time, and of course I met Elizabeth during those first couple years in Hollywood. And Shirley was almost my sister-in-law because I was engaged to her brother, Warren Beatty [in 1960]. At one point during filming, when I was sitting in the car with her, getting ready to film, she said, “So Joan, tell me—how was my brother?” I just looked at her and said, “Overrated.” It was only a joke, but we had a good laugh about it.

MacLaine and Collins in 1958. Photo: Getty Images

Back to my original question: If Elizabeth Taylor lived up to every expectation, was there anyone who disappointed you?

Yes, there were quite a few, I have to say. I don’t think I’ll go into the specifics because I don’t like to dabble in negativity. But some of the male actors I worked with in my earlier films were very cold. I was 20 and they were usually 45, so there was just no connection. I adored Farley Granger in The Girl in the Red Velvet Swing, but unfortunately there were problems with some other actors.

I recently watched the HBO docuseries about Paul Newman and Joanne Woodward and learned that you made a film with them. How was that experience?

They were great friends of mine and really fought for me to be in Rally ’Round the Flag, Boys! Paul wanted me, but the studio wanted Jayne Mansfield because they said, “Brunettes aren’t funny.” Paul insisted and said, “Actually she’s very funny, and you have to cast her.”

Collins with Paul Newman in the 1958 film Rally ’Round the Flag, Boys! Photo: Getty Images

I’m a Gregory Peck fan, so I’m curious what it was like working with him in The Bravados.

Well, I got to know Gregory and his wife [Veronique Peck] better much later, about 20 years after we made The Bravados. But at that particular time he was much older than me and there was no chemistry between us. I know his character is supposed to be upset because his wife had been raped and murdered, but I played a woman he had a relationship with, and that didn’t really come across onscreen. It felt stale.

Gregory Peck with Collins in a scene from the 1958 film The Bravados.  Photo: Getty Images

You briefly mention in This Is Joan Collins that you were an early investor in the L.A. disco scene. I’m dying to hear more about that.

I knew a lot about discos because I started going to them in London when I was 16, although back then they were called jazz clubs. I used to go to the Daisy in L.A. and the Tramp in London, which my sister owned with her husband. [In 1968] my then husband, Anthony [Newley], and I helped open this fantastic discotheque called the Factory. It was the most fabulous building in West Hollywood and operated as a private club, so members had to join, and the wait list was massive. Every single night you’d see somebody eye-popping—Barbra Streisand, Marlon Brando, Sammy Davis Jr.; Bobby Kennedy was there all the time. But like most discos, it became overpopulated and lost its charisma very quickly. It closed in about six months.

Did you ever make it to Studio 54?

I went once and didn’t really like it. There was a lot of marijuana going around, and I’ve never been interested in drugs. Back then I preferred whiskey, and now I’m more of a wine or martini person.

Collins was briefly engaged to Warren Beatty in 1960, before his breakout performance in Splendor in the Grass. Photo: Getty Images

Did working on this documentary make you reconsider any past choices? Personal or professional?

Quite a few things. Mostly turning down movies because the men in my life didn’t think they were good enough. Warren convinced me to turn down Sons and Lovers. The producer at Fox kept begging me to do it and he said, “This is a great role! You’ll get nominated for an Oscar!” I didn’t do it because I was in the thrall of a new love with Warren. Eventually Mary Ure took the part, and guess what? She did get nominated for an Oscar. So that was a very stupid thing for me to do.

I also thought I could’ve fought more to make residuals from Dynasty. Aaron Spelling’s lawyers came to me at one point and said, “Sign this document saying you’ll get so-and-so amount a week in salary and give up all of your rights to residuals.” When I asked why, they told me that serials like Dynasty don’t typically produce much residual income. I said I didn’t believe them, but they kept saying, “Well, John [Forsythe], Linda [Evans], and the rest of the cast have all agreed.” So there was really nothing I could do and I had to just go along.

 Linda Evans, John Forsythe, and Collins in a promotional image for Dyansty’s fourth season in 1983. Photo: Getty Images

I read that you also fought for a raise once your character was shown to boost the show’s popularity. How did it feel to go up against the network at a time when there wasn’t as much transparency around issues like pay equity in Hollywood?

Dynasty became one of the most popular series of all time and made the network billions—and I mean billions. You have no idea. And when I asked the network to put me closer in salary to John, they simply refused. When I kept asking why, they said, “Because he’s an actor, and you’re an actress. End of story.” You really had to fight to be heard in those days.

What do you hope viewers take away from This Is Joan Collins, be they longtime fans or people new to your story?

Well, I’m very, very pleased with the film and think it’s extremely entertaining, so I can only hope that others feel the same. It shows a side of me that I think much of the public could never visualize. I don’t think many people can picture me as a young pregnant woman dancing with my then-husband Anthony Newley or strolling with my children through Central Park. It’s not that I wanted to prove anything, but this felt like a chance to show people who the real Joan Collins is.

This Is Joan Collins premieres on TCM September 20th.