It’s hard for people who didn’t live through the 1960s and the 1970s to understand just what a big deal Jackie Collins was then. The daughter of a British theatrical agent and younger sister of the noted actress Joan Collins, she first tried her hand at acting, before finding her true calling in writing. Her first novel, The World is Full of Married Men (1968), was a best-seller, as were each of her subsequent 31 novels. The World is Full of Married Men was also banned in several countries, which only helped to feed the publicity machine. Today, her books have been translated into 40 languages and sold over 500 million copies, and eight have been adapted for film or television, so Collins definitely had the last laugh over those who tried to put down her work.
Laura Fairrie’s documentary Lady Boss: The Jackie Collins Story both traces Collins’ life story and situates her work within the popular culture of her times. It’s a traditionally structured documentary which makes use of a wealth of archival materials as well as a number of stylishly staged interviews with relatives and contemporaries of Collins. Those interviews deserve special mention, because it’s unusual for a director to devote as much attention to the way interviews look on screen as to what the subjects are saying. Rather than pretending that speaking to camera is a normal, everyday activity, for instance, Fairrie emphasizes the artificiality of the situation by placing her subjects near the center of the frame, and frequently shooting from a sufficient distance that most of the subject’s body as well as a great deal of their surroundings are included the shot. The lighting and color scheme for these interviews is devised as carefully as it would be in a narrative film shoot, as is what would in another context be termed costuming and set decoration.
Collins’s novels may seem almost quaint to readers today, but their combination of sexiness, strong female protagonists, and glamorous settings was remarkable in her day. Collins promoted her books tirelessly, becoming a well-known public figure through appearances on television talk shows and the like. Her authorial persona was carefully constructed to embody the sexy empowerment of her heroines, in stark contrast to an older school of romance writers in the Barbara Cartland mold. Put it this way: when Cartland denounced Collin’s first novel as “nasty, filthy, and disgusting” one can imagine Collin’s replying “Thanks!”
Contemporary viewers may take issue with the limited nature of the empowerment promoted by Collins in her books and public appearances—it’s embodied in conventionally attractive, well-off white women, who like sex with men and go after what they want—but even that was shocking in her day. As Collins points out more than once in archival interviews, the so-called sexual revolution didn’t eliminate the double standard, and that double standard applied not only to sexual desire, but also to practical questions like who is expected to be responsible for the childcare and housework. Also worth remembering: if Collins did not present a conventionally attractive, sexually desirable persona in her public appearances, the men who ran the contemporary entertainment world would have been much less interested in giving her the opportunity to become a public figure in the first place.
A little googling reveals that there is a line of nutritional supplements, apps, and gear called LadyBoss (the title of a Collins novel as well as this documentary) on the market which claims as its company mission to “help women lose weight while loving themselves again.” That’s an underhanded way to deliver the same old punishing message, packaged in the trappings of empowerment: what’s most important about a woman is the way she looks, and no one, including you yourself, can love you if you don’t fit a predetermined standard of beauty. So maybe the attitudes presented in Jackie Collins’ novels are not as dated as some think they are. | Sarah Boslaugh
Lady Boss made its world premiere at the Tribeca Festival and is currently available for virtual screening through the Tribeca At Home platform. Further information about tickets and passes for the Tribeca Festival 2021, which runs through June 20, is available from the festival web site.