Lady Boss, Laura Fairrie’s lush-looking but rather desolate documentary about Jackie Collins and her shag-happy fiction, suggests a sexual position in its title: this is to be about a woman on top, bestraddling men who are little more than anthropomorphised dildos. As though to confirm this suspicion, we are treated to a scene from the film adaptation of The Stud, the second of Collins’s novels, in which her sister, Joan, manhandles the mystified Oliver Tobias in a rickety, rattling lift and, with her arched back pressed against its metal gates, issues a gruff command to ‘Screw me, you bastard! Keep it hard!’
Soon enough, however, another voice is overheard, as Fairrie’s camera cruises teasingly across a page of one of Collins’s books, scrutinising the inky words at such close range that they seem to sweat in discomfort. ‘Suck it! You know you love it!’ someone says. ‘Get your clothes off! I mean now!’ Presumably it’s a man talking, so already the woman is back on the bottom, meekly compliant.
Ensuing sentences about ‘spasms of delight’ and ‘floating in paradise’ burble orgasmically, while Fairrie attempts to convey a metaphorical orgasm by showing us a woman diving into a pool in a Los Angeles backyard and making delectable waves. Despite this liquid interlude, the truth about Collins is more brutally down-to-earth, closer to ‘Suck it’ than to ‘Screw me’. She was the victim of several abusive men: a father who declared, ‘I am king!’, threw food at a wife he mocked for being old and ugly, and was sickened by his daughter’s books; a drug-addicted first husband who controlled her by threatening to kill himself if she left him (which he did when she did, after which, in a television interview that touched on her abbreviated grieving process, she shrugged and said that she had to get on with her life); a last lover who gambled, drank, philandered, resented her wealth while helping himself to it and terrorised her with the guns he kept in her house, before providentially expiring from a brain tumour.
A publicist interviewed by Fairrie praises Collins and her heroines – a sorority of maniacal nymphs with names like Fontaine Khaled, Lucky Santangelo and Cameron Paradise – because these were ‘women who behaved like men’. Is that supposed to be good, given how men behaved towards Collins? But such a characterisation at least explains the persona she contrived for public appearances: the leonine mullet, the cantilevered shoulders, those gold lamé jackets with their workmanlike rolled-up sleeves, the leopard skins that she wore like a big-game hunter, the swaggering strut.
Every detail semaphored power and valiantly atoned for inadequacy. Collins had no skill with language, as her agent, Mort Janklow, shamelessly admits. Fairrie’s camera proves the point by perusing her diaries: her handwriting remained childish, with little bows tied on every upright letter, and she must have thought of punctuation as a titivating frill because in one filmed specimen she adds a cute little apostrophe to ‘eyes’. But literary talent mattered less to her than marketing, marathon book-signing sessions and tours of the talk shows.
What fuelled it all was sibling rivalry. Collins grew up in her sister’s shadow and was ticked off by Joan herself for copying her; despite cosmetic adjustments – ‘I love my new nose!’ she confided to her diary – she failed when she attempted to follow Joan into the movies. She responded by manufacturing an armour-plated version of Alexis, the mercenary termagant Joan played in the plutocratic television series Dynasty. But she lacked the sense of irony that made Joan giggle at the absurd roles in which she was reduced to over-ripe exotic decor – an Egyptian vamp in Land of the Pharaohs, a husband-filching chorus girl in The Opposite Sex, the screaming prey of mutated insects in Empire of the Ants, a bargain-basement Cleopatra in an episode of Fantasy Island. More naive and needy, Jackie took the whole Hollywood imposture seriously, imagined she was telling the scabrous truth about it and mistook her soft-porn fantasias for moral fables.
Dominick Dunne, profiling the Collins sisters in 1988, said that Joan had ‘the unmistakable look, at once gallant and sad, of the Hollywood survivor’. When I visited Joan in Los Angeles in 1990 to write my own profile, the look I noticed had a wickedly triumphant twinkle, but Dunne’s phrase exactly catches her sister’s guarded, secretly hurt expression as she outfaces a scornful world in Fairrie’s film. On Terry Wogan’s talk show, she smiles gamely when Barbara Cartland – a ghoulish coquette in pink organza, like Miss Havisham freshly arisen from the grave – accuses her of being ‘evil’ and ‘creating perverts’; she listens patiently on Robert Kilroy-Silk’s programme as a genteel elderly woman says she felt ‘demeaned’ by reading a single paragraph from one of her books and a feisty young woman argues that her fiction encourages sexual enslavement not female liberation.
Collins battled on, flying to London in 2015 while terminally ill with breast cancer to appear, gaunt but impeccably groomed, on one last trivial, time-wasting talk show, after which she returned to Los Angeles, where she died ten days later. As Fairrie’s credit titles unreeled, I noticed ‘Jackie Collins LLC’ among the acknowledgements. Her body may never have felt those engulfing erotic spasms, but she was and still posthumously is a corporation.