There is a riveting moment in “Lady Boss,” an insightful documentary about the life of novelist Jackie Collins, in which we see Collins preparing her face for the camera. She brushes her bangs a bit with her finger as if to give herself something positive to do, but there is turmoil going on behind her eyes; it looks like she is struggling to hold down enormous pain and insecurity, and this struggle is intensely active, for there was nothing passive about Collins.
Once the camera is ready for her, Collins has arranged her face into the semi-snarly made-up armor that she presented in her glamorous public life, which always included large hair, shoulder pads and a liking for leopard-print fabric. Collins was English, but her books were very successful in America because she subscribed religiously to the American urge for self-reinvention.
Collins grew up in the shadow of her movie star sister, Joan, who is interviewed for this documentary. “It’s like a marriage,” Joan says of her relationship with her little sister. “Everything doesn’t go perfectly wonderfully all the time.” Joan was already successful in films in the 1950s, whereas Jackie was made to feel like an also-ran in spite of what Joan calls her “fantastic figure.” Photographed as a teenager, Jackie looks very different from her later image, with big beseeching eyes, and in her early 20s, she had some plastic surgery to bring herself more in line with what she wanted to be visually. “I love my new nose,” she wrote in her diary.
Jackie’s diary is used as valuable source material in “Lady Boss,” and it reveals a much darker story than might at first seem apparent when looking at the surface of her life and the persona she created. When Joan speaks of their father, Joseph, in her interviews for this documentary, she calls him remote and strict but emphasizes his charm. In Jackie’s diary, however, Joseph is depicted as a tyrant who could be very cruel to his wife, Elsa, at one point telling her, “I am king!” When Elsa became ill with cancer, Joseph did not allow it to be spoken of.
Joseph told Jackie that she wasn’t beautiful or slim enough, and Joan herself could be critical of her sister: “I look awful — Joan told me so,” reads one of Jackie’s diary entries. Her first marriage to a man named Wallace Austin proved disastrous due to his drug addiction and mental health problems, and Jackie had to find the nerve to leave him even though he was always threatening suicide if she did. When an interviewer asks Jackie about Austin’s suicide, her face is riven with pain before she wills herself into saying that she does not feel guilt over it; everything with her was an act of will.
Her second husband, Oscar Lerman, adored Jackie and pushed her to finish the book that would become her first bestseller, “The World Is Full of Married Men.” Joan eventually starred in two movies based on books by Jackie, “The Stud” and “The Bitch,” which made them into “the Gish sisters of soft porn” according to columnist Libby Gelman-Waxner. Joan’s career enjoyed a resurgence on TV on “Dynasty” while Jackie had one of her biggest successes with “Hollywood Wives,” and so the sisters were on nearly equal footing in the mid-1980s, but Jackie did look askance privately when Joan invaded her territory and tried to write some hedonistic novels of her own.
Jackie’s beloved husband Oscar died in 1992, and there was a third major coupling with a playboy named Frank Calcagnini, who was not liked by any of her friends and family; in a rare moment of solidarity, Joan tries to describe why her sister got involved with the angry and controlling Calcagnini and finally concludes, “Women put up with a lot.” It must be said that Joan doesn’t come off particularly well in this documentary some of the time, but she acted as a spur for Jackie, and sometimes that can be a productive thing.
In the last years of her life, Jackie told friends she was through with serious relationships but would take lovers if they expected nothing of her. She tried her best to live up to the sex-positive heroines of her books, and we see her stoically endure being relentlessly attacked by self-righteous audience members on a 1990s talk show; on another program, romance novelist Barbara Cartland, made-up like Baby Jane Hudson, calls Jackie’s novels “evil,” and Jackie just laughs in response.
Jackie stayed true to her image to the very end, keeping quiet about her own battle with cancer for several years before doing a final book tour where only her iron will kept her together. “Lady Boss” offers the story of a woman with a lot going against her who struck a blow against the sexual double standard and struck a blow for women seeking pleasure for its own sake. Her fight to achieve that goal often makes for a compelling story in its own right.
“Lady Boss: The Jackie Collins Story” will air on CNN June 27 following its world premiere at the Tribeca Film Festival.