Lady Boss: The Jackie Collins Story Tells a Fascinating and Engrossing Story of a Fascinating and Engrossing Woman

My sister was amazing! She had an incredible life.

Joan Collins
Still from Lady Boss: The Jackie Collins Story (CNN Films/BBC Arts)

Jackie Collins became synonymous with glossy, titillating pop-pulp romance fiction. Like Danielle Steele, Barbara Cartland, or Judith Krantz, Collins used her his literary gifts to tell salacious sex romps. But she was more than just a phenomenally successful author, she was also a media figure, a woman who became a brand, an entity onto herself. In the 1980s, she was a ubiquitous figure in pop culture, her quick wit and intellect making her a very popular presence as a professional chat show guest. Initially known as “Joan Collins’ younger sister,” when she abandoned her indifferent dreams of movie stardom for herself and found her own niche as a writer, she transcended that limiting sobriquet and became a superstar in her own right. In Lady Boss: The Jackie Collins Story, Laura Fairrie tells the fascinating tale of a woman who created a persona that helped her sell over 500 million copies of her books.

Collins’ story starts in the UK, in London. She was the younger sister of the blindingly beautiful and talented Joan Collins. Born to a tyrannical and abusive father, Joe Collins, an agent who hid his brutish personality beneath a charming polish. Jackie was mistreated by her father who didn’t see much potential in her. Unlike the Elizabeth Taylor-like Joan, Jackie Collins wasn’t glamorous in the same way and as a result, she struggled to find her place. When Joan went to Hollywood and became a starlet, Jackie followed, a hanger-on, more than anything, someone who joined the glitzy showbiz parties, casting her sharp eye and making internal notes, absorbing the very specific life of mid-century Hollywood. These forays into celebrity social life would eventually become Jackie Collins a romance novel colossus.

The film does a fantastic job of presenting two Jackie Collinses: the slick, rehearsed public figure who can fling around tart one-liners with the aplomb of a stand-up comedian; and through friends and family, we see the private Jackie Collins, a damaged and ambitious woman who shouldered quite a bit of adversity in her life. The film’s structure is straight forward, largely chronological, as Collins’ story is charted from her humble origins in London to her glossy superstardom in Los Angeles. We see home video clips of Sidney Poitier, Michael Caine, Sandra Bullock all palling around with Collins. Fairrie also uses archival material of her subject appearing on television shows like The Oprah Winfrey Show exhibiting Collins’ enterprising way of hustling. Few authors were able to sell books the way she did because she was just as interested in the marketing side of books, actually selling her books, than most authors.

Though Jackie Collins’ stories told tales of ultra-feminine women, Fairrie finds the feminism in her life story. A self-identified feminist, Collins’ mantra was “girls can do anything” and she applied that slogan to her professional life, decrying sexist double standards that damned women who embraced their sexuality. Smarmy gross male talk show hosts and uptight prudes misunderstood her prescience and in one particularly disturbing sequence, Collins was forced to face young feminists who repeatedly and boorishly dragged her, accusing her of being a turncoat and a traitor to feminism.

The sequence that shows Collins pitted against younger feminists is important because it shines a spotlight on the tension and the contradiction in Collins’ public persona: though, Collins created a life and a career for herself, some argued that by using explicit sex (which bordered on erotica), she was merely doing what male authors have been doing to women for years: reducing them to sexual objects.

One thing that Fairrie does well is show the toil and calculation in took to create Jackie Collins. Though she gamely weathered the slings by her critics, privately they stung. Instead of allowing herself to be overwhelmed by the hate, Collins did something proactive and creative, she constructed a persona: Jackie Collins. It was a glossy, shellacked armor: the plastic surgery, the heavy makeup, the big hair, the linebacker shoulder pads, the leopard print (one of her daughters aptly described the visual spectacle as “quite startling”) – it was all a protective crust to deflect the nasty dings she weathered. The seemingly cosmopolitan and urbane Collins who easily glided through TV spots and talk shows was architecture. It was a smart creation, one that admittedly leaned into the campy somewhat vulgar aesthetic of 1980s romance pop fiction. As if to acknowledge this good-natured trashiness, Fairrie sprinkles throughout the film, scenes from a kitschy TV movie adaptation of Collins’ work, starring a bewigged Nicolette Sheridan.

It’s a testament to Fairrie’s interest in Collins as well as the subject’s own celebrity and place in pop history, that Joan Collins is relegated to a supporting role and doesn’t dominate the film’s story. Whilst it was fun for the press to play up the supposed rivalry between Joan and Jackie, the complicated relationship is treated far more interestingly in the film. Joan appears in the film to add context and history but she’s somewhat subdued (well, as subdued as Joan Collins can be). Their relationship was prickly but ultimately it came off as surprisingly normal – well, as normal as possible when you’re talking about Joan Collins and Jackie Collins. What Lady Boss exposed was a very normal and essentially loving relationship between the sisters that is speckled with rivalry that had been spiked with egos, money, and celebrity. (there’s a mordantly funny moment courtesy of a vintage TV spot with an oblivious Jane Pauley mistakenly introducing Jackie Collins as Joan Collins). But it’s refreshing to see that Fairrie doesn’t indulge reductive cartoony bitchy cat fighting. When Joan Collins parlayed her fame into writing some junky romance novels herself, the two women were pitted against each other, though in a far more direct way. Still, the tension doesn’t balloon into some War of the Roses-style tug of war.

Even if people aren’t a fan of Jackie Collins’ work, Lady Boss is a compelling watch. The Jackie Collins who emerges from this film is a very interesting and cool lady. The shiny wit, the overblown, drag-like persona, all of it was part of a fascinating woman. A woman who enjoyed unimaginable privilege but also a woman who worked hard and created everything for herself. It also showed a woman who created an empire but was still riddled with self-doubts, trauma, and vulnerability.

Matt Tyrnauer tries to understand evil incarnate in ‘Where’s My Roy Cohn?’

Roy Cohn’s name has become synonymous with unrepentant evil for good reason. His long and storied career has been studded with some of the most shameful moments of American history in the 20th century. An enthusiastic foot soldier for Joseph McCarthy, he worked to destroy the lives of suspected Communists, including rooting out closeted homosexuals who worked for the federal government, as well as playing a major part in the Julius and Ethel Rosenberg trial (including manipulating witnesses for the prosecution) leading to the execution of the Rosenbergs for espionage. But Cohn’s zeal for the unsavory continued unabated in the 1970s and 1980s, working with mobsters and helping future president, Donald J. Trump settle his way out of some major civil rights housing abuses. Towards the end of his career, he was finally disbarred for, among the listed ills, of ethics violations, including forcing a dying, comatose man to “sign” an altered will that would make Cohn one of the beneficiaries. This man is a piece of work.

What Tyrnauer tries to do in Where Is My Roy Cohn?, is to figure out what motivated this hateful little man to wage a war against humanity. If people come to the film for some mild redemption of the figure, they’ll be disappointed. If anything, the film exposes a character who is far more odious than thought possible. Having access to loads of material and interviews, the image that we’re left with is a twisted soul with no hope of redemption.

Cohn’s story is not only one of evil amoral wickedness but of tragic self-loathing. Though Cohn was a major figure in the Lavender Scare, bullying closeted queer employees of the U.S. federal government (this would eventually lead to Eisenhower banning gay folks from working for the federal government), he himself was a gay man, living a seemingly semi-closeted life. I write semi-closeted because though Cohn never came out, his queerness became something of an open secret, including in the social circles he ran with, even the most alt-right conservative ones. During the McCarthy hearings, Cohn’s friendship with zealous anti-Communist hotel heir G. David Schine was the source of some gross homophobic jabs during the combative hearings; and during the 1970s, Cohn was a regular figure at Studio 54 as well as Province Town, often squired by a coterie of handsome men. This contradiction vexes the story and leaves his tragic ending – Cohn died of AIDS in 1986 at the age of 56 – a knotty question. Was he a self-loathing queen who directed his anger and hate outwards? Though Cohn’s queerness is an important theme of the film, the director doesn’t try to pathologize or analyze how living in the closet may have created this ugly destructive behavior in the man.

Instead, Tyrnauer is content to just present the story. He follows Cohn’s story chronologically, starting with an unhappy childhood in the Bronx, with a domineering, rather unpleasant mother – both Cohn and his mother are described repeatedly as being physically unattractive, an unfortunate bit of physiognomy that seeks to explain the possible roots of Cohn’s bad behavior. The young Cohn is described as brilliant and something of a legal wunderkind, graduating from Columbia Law School so early, he wasn’t allowed to practice law yet. Instead of applying his considerable legal prowess on changing the world for good, he instead used it to further a noxious agenda as well as to further his own pursuits of wealth and access to political and social power.

It would be very easy to write that Cohn was horrible because he wasn’t treated well as a young person, and therefore was venting his spleen at an unfair world. And probably some of that is true. But the general consensus from the various interviewees of Where’s My Roy Cohn? is that the guy was simply a bad man, intent on being as destructive as possible in his goal to achieve his cracked view of success. It’s a startling portrait of a man who’s influence can still be felt in electoral politics today.

A devoted fan asks ‘What Would Sophia Do?’

Because movie stars are omnipresent, we seem to know them. For many people, their favorite matinee idol is more than just a beautiful image, projected on the screen, but an emotional avatar. Richard Dyer writes about the power of film stardom, nurtured by public knowledge of a movie star’s live and how her image precedes any work on characters she plays, no matter how skilled an actress she is.

For New Jersey grandmother, Vincenza “Nancy” Kulik, it’s Italian icon Sophia Loren. The Oscar-winning film giant has an incredible career, marked by its longevity and Kulik as found Loren to be an inspiration. Kulik, an Italian-American woman, feels a deep connection to her Italian roots – her parents were immigrants from Naples, like Loren – and consumes Loren’s filmography, connecting to the films passionately. The question, “What would Sophia do?” would pop up from time to time in Kulik’s life as she navigated motherhood in the 1960s.

Directed by Ross Kauffman, What Would Sophia Do? is a short film that spotlights the importance of art and its comforting qualities. Kulik not only follows Loren’s career but also her personal life, as it was covered extensively by the media. Loren’s long life was marked by great success and joy, but also by adversity – she was born into poverty, her father abandoned her, she fled her small town near Naples during WWII when it became a target for bombing. Winning a beauty contest at 15, parlayed her good looks, great talent, and ambition to a success as a film star. And like every great movie diva, she’s distinguished as a survivor.

And though Kulik’s life is decidedly less glamorous, she also went through some tragedy in her life, finding succor in Loren’s art. We get to see Kulik gush about her movie idol with an open affection. We watch clips of films with the film subject, the camera steadily capturing the profound appreciation the New Jersey American has for the Italian bombshell. She’s joyful when watching Loren’s many comedies and farces (Loren was an underrated comedienne) and we see anguish on her face when she watches Loren’s searing, Oscar-winning performance in Vittorio De Sica’s 1962 classic war drama, Two Women. When Loren’s character and her onscreen daughter are brutally raped, Kulik is moved and devastated – she then offers an astute analysis of the film and Loren’s personal work.

Kulik makes for a personable subject. She’s sharp and witty and she’s very enthusiastic about her favorite movie star. Loren does appear in the film, as well, her queenly presence undimmed by her age. When the inevitable meeting takes place between Kulik and Loren, it’s satisfying and heartwarming and the two women find a kinship and connection in their shared adoration of film and cinema.

What Would Sophia Do? shows viewers the healing powers and properties of cinema. When we settle into our plush seats, room fading into black, we are pulled from our world and welcomed into a fictional world, one that is scripted and controlled, as opposed to the unpredictable real world outside the cinema (as evident by Kulik’s personal tragedies) It’s a small film that pays tribute to healing powers of fandom.

 

‘5B’ tells the important story of the heroes (and villains) of the early days of the AIDS crisis

It’s strange to watch Dan Krauss and Paul Haggis’ 2018 film 5B during a worldwide pandemic. Telling the story of the world’s first AIDS ward which was opened at the San Francisco General Hospital, 5B highlights the heroic efforts of the doctors, nurses, patients, and early activists who responded to the early, terrifying days of the AIDS crisis with compassion, intelligence, bravery, and science. More than just an illness, HIV/AIDS was a highly political issue, too, a major part of the Culture Wars of the 1980s, in which the empowered Christian Right used the epidemic as a way to target the gay community. Understandably, very few of the patients were able to participate in the film, but most of the early players – the medical professionals, in particular – are still around to tell the harrowing tale of tending to the needs of dying men who were being ostracized by their families and communities.

Watching 5B in 2020 is poignant because we’re currently living through a global pandemic and it’s easy to forget how final an HIV diagnosis was in 1983 (some of the nurses testify in the film that once a patient was diagnosed with AIDS, he would die within a few months) The AIDS crisis grew steadily from the early 1980s, seemingly striking the gay male community exclusively. In the early days, it was unclear whether the virus was transmittable through casual contact. In vintage video clips, we see mystifying scenes of nurses and doctors stepping into personal protective equipment (PPE) before tending to AIDS patients. A gasping patient, his voice rattling from a lung infection shares his surprise at being touched by an ungloved hand and the effect is devastating.

As a response to the growing hatred and discrimination that AIDS patients were facing – not just by the public but by members of the medical community – a group of nurses, doctors, and carers banded together to create the world’s first AIDS ward in the city that is considered by many to be the Ground Zero of the AIDS crisis. The early advocates of AIDS patients worked to build an important resource for these young men who were dying of a terrible and horrifying disease. At one point, a nurse is quoted as advising a younger neophyte nurse to change her approach from curing her patients to making them comfortable as they die.

The tension in the film arises when these early heroes face opposition from a panicked populace including nurses who are afraid of working with AIDS patients without wearing PPE, politicians who accused AIDS advocates of pushing a liberal, pro-gay agenda, and most disturbingly, politicians who wanted to respond to the AIDS crisis with hostility and bigotry. We have clips of terrible people like William F. Buckley and California congressman, William Dannemeyer who suggest terrifying solutions like quarantining and isolating AIDS patients (Buckley even thought it’d be a good idea to tattoo people with AIDS)

The other major obstacle is the disease’s catastrophic effect on its patients. As people were getting sicker, their bodies were ravaged by infectious diseases, their immunity shot to hell. We see searing scenes of patients crying out in pain, their bodies twisted in pain. The other distressing aspect of the disease was seeing these young men abandoned by their friends and family, left alone to be loved by the carers of 5B, including the Rita Rockett, an AIDS activist who entertained the patients with bawdy comedy and songs, hosting large dinners with the staff.

Though the film honors the good work of these real life angels, we also hear from Dr Lorraine Day, a pioneering orthopedic surgeon who turned from an early advocate of mandatory testing/disclosure of status from patients to a right-wing anti-gay activist. Initially, Dr Day is presented as a reasonable, if problematic, voice in the film. Highlighting her good work as a surgeon, she makes several important points that reflected the fear medical professionals had in the early days of the AIDS crisis. As the film progresses though, she morphs into a terrifying figure, her transformation complete at the end when she bitterly demeans and trivializes the work of the carers of 5B, going as far as blaming gay men for their plight.

But Day is only one voice and thankfully her voice is outshouted by the calm, pastoral, and empowering chorus of the nurses and doctors who did the good work which Dr Day didn’t appreciate. Alison Moed Paolercio is a stirring interview subject, sharing heartbreaking anecdotes and stories of gay couples facing the scourge of such a terrible death; Cliff Morrision, one of the main voices of 5B and the ward’s work, offers important historical context; and Mary Magee bravely tells her story of volunteering to work at an AIDS ward before becoming infected with the virus herself in a work mishap. These very good people, along with all of the other good people in the film, pay homage to important work that 5B celebrates.

For much of the film, we see clips from the 80s juxtaposed with scenes of the ward, now empty. Morrison wanders through the hallways, peeking into the darkened rooms as if checking in with ghosts of the past. The older clips show many of our interview subjects young and fresh-faced, all recruiting like soldiers, facing a new and unfamiliar war. The scenes of the early days of 5B show urgent scenes of nurses holding their patients’ hands, stroking their faces, holding them close. One nurse is filmed saying, through tears, that she sees these patients as her children.

In the contemporary interviews, the subjects have significantly aged, seemingly burdened by their trauma and experience. Because HIV is no longer the death sentence it once was, it feels as if time has rushed by, brushing these warriors aside, relegating them to footnotes of history. Their careworn faces look at the camera with an unflinching honesty, pain, and still-potent fury. And their message of advocacy, kindness, and activism still resonates.

‘Sid and Judy’ tells a fascinating – if familiar – story of a tragic legend

Judy Garland’s story of tragedy and pain has been retold many times since her premature death in 1969. So much of her legend is now wrapped up in her wretched life, that her life of devastation threatens to overshadow her overwhelming talent. Though she’s known for her incredibly powerful voice and her preternatural acting talent, she’s also known for the pills and booze, so much so that it’s become an inseparable part of her legacy. A shame obviously, because it’s reductive. So it was with some hope, I turned to Stephen Kijak’s 2019 documentary Sid and Judy – a film that focused largely on Garland’s marriage with Sid Luft, an ambitious impresario, who was able to navigate her career to success as a concert performer after her film career had ended. The title of the film is a witty allusion to Alex Cox’s Sid and Nancy, the cult classic story of Sid Vicious and Nancy Spungen. And though concentrating on one chapter of Garland’s storied life and career is a smart one – viewers already know all of the terrifying tales of drugs during her time at MGM – Kijak doesn’t try to escape or complicate the cliche of Garland as disaster. The film is still very good, and pays loving tribute to a complicated and brilliant woman, but it leans heavily into themes that have been rehashed each time a filmmaker attempts to tell Garland’s story.

The story of Sid Luft and Judy Garland is one of frustration, triumph, and disappointment. He met Garland in 1952 two years after being fired by MGM for her unreliable and unprofessional behavior on the set of Royal Wedding. She battled demons and defied doctors’ prognosis that she would never perform after a series of well-received concert performances throughout the UK and Ireland that gave her a second career: that of a superstar concert performer. These shows became stuff of mythology as Garland was able to conjure magic on stage. With Luft’s help, she became a major star again, winning a Tony, breaking box office records, all of this culminating in a major Hollywood comeback in the 1954 musical drama, A Star Is Born. Nominated for an Academy Award, Garland was the toast of the town though the financial security the couple sought was frustrated by the film’s box office performance – its excessive length coupled with a terrible botched editing job – torpedoed its changes of a profit, and the film lost money, thereby cutting short Garland’s film comeback. Turning to television and the stage, with Luft’s steerage, Garland orchestrated another series of comebacks, including an iconic stint at Carnegie Hall that resulted in the Grammy-winning, number one album Judy at Carnegie Hall and The Judy Garland Show, a weekly variety show that yet again proved to be an unsuccessful attempt at providing Garland with some stability.

Kijak’s film is incredible to look at. Even though we know what will happen, he still manages to tell a compelling story using a library of remarkable photographs and the narration of his two stars: Jon Hamm and Jennnifer Jason Leigh. Hamm takes on playing Luft, reading his letters and offering commentary on his wife. Hamm does a soft, subtle wiseguy inflection when doing his performance and is moving. Leigh has a tougher job with Garland’s words because her subject had such a distinct speaking voice, and at times, the actress dips into mere impression. But it’s a novel approach to have the actors play out the letters written by the explosive couple – Garland, especially, was an emotional scribe, pledging undying love and devotion, even when their marriage was disintegrating. The access to these letters provides the film with a lovely core of mutual admiration that buoys the film’s more maudlin and depressing moments.

Kathy Griffin shows an indomitable spirit but still makes us laugh in ‘A Hell of a Story’

On May 30, 2017, Kathy Griffin’s world changed forever. A picture depicting the comedienne holding up a ketchup-drenched mask of “president” 45 went viral and quickly caught the ire of the White House, and quickly she found herself facing career ruin. Not only were her commercial prospects dwindling, but she saw famous friends turn on her, and most disturbingly, she was facing an investigation by the United States Department of Justice, she was placed on the No Fly list, the FBI were monitoring death threats sent to her; her tour was canceled, and when she mounted an overseas tour, she found herself on the Interpol list, being detained in every airport on the tour.

It wasn’t clear if Griffin’s career would survive attacks from the White House, the First Family, or the president himself. Already an outsider in Hollywood, she was ostracized, finding herself isolated by many of her peers. But like her idol, Joan Rivers, Griffin regrouped and re-created herself, folding politics into her work. In her latest concert film, Kathy Griffin: A Hell of a Story, she shares her story in hopes of ensuring that First Amendment is protected in an increasingly terrifying world.

The film is a concert film with some twenty-five minutes of footage taken from her international tour. For the most part, we’re seeing a triumphant, hard-working Griffin finding success with international audiences. But there are some heartbreaking scenes as well, in which the comedienne seems overwhelmed by the pressures as well as the constant barrage of hate from a sophisticated and merciless apparatus, intent on destroying her.

The concert itself is an interesting departure for Griffin. Those who remember her hilarious Bravo specials will be surprised at the weighty material in her show. Obviously, she’s put aside the anecdotes of running into Britney Spears or Kirstie Alley at an awards show, and instead talks about the tumultuous year that she endured. Griffin as a stand-up comic is more storyteller than joke teller. Emerging from the alternative comedy scene, Griffin’s style of comedy is one that relies on wit and an ability to tell a tale – she doesn’t do “punchlines” and her stories aren’t linear. One tangent feeds into another, and the effect is more like hearing a really smart and insightful friend talk to you.

The material is primarily about politics – and though Griffin has always been political – rarely has her show been so dominated by politics. She takes on the president, freed from feelings of regret. In fact, if anything, she attacks her material with a righteous rage, at one point, bursting into an extended soliloquy at the prospect of being led away in handcuffs and a jumpsuit:

“I don’t care how much it costs, I don’t care if I have to lose my house, and lose everything, over my dead body am I letting any of you see me do a fucking perp walk in a jumpsuit for my First Amendment rights which I did not violate. I’m not letting a woman see it, I’m not letting a person of color see it, I’m not letting a gay person see it, I don’t fucking care how much it costs, over my dead body! A perp walk like a fucking criminal. No fucking way, never!”

Her show reaches these stirring moments a number of times. As she describes her ordeal of being detained in airports, losing her livelihood, or being interrogated by FBI agents, the audience often falls into an intense silence. Griffin also trades into gallows humor, reading her death threats, making light of the stupidity of some of the morons who have threatened her on social media.

A Hell of a Story describes a defining moment in a comedienne’s life and career when she’s forced to face down a seemingly impenetrable foe. She extrapolates her story to a larger lesson about sexism, misogyny, racism, homophobia, and the erosion of our civil liberties and the importance of true freedom of speech. Griffin dons the guise of warrior.

But she’s also hilarious.

The story in Hell of a Story is a serious one, often marked by poignancy and horror, but it’s also very funny. Griffin is a quick-witted raconteur who shares her anecdotes with a dizzying intelligence and adroit skill that is often astonishing. When she launches into uproarious impressions of Sarah Sanders, Jared Kushner, and Rosie O’Donnell, she leaves her audiences tickled. And though her show isn’t as celebrity-focused as usual, she does manage to fold in some Kardashian material, as well (Kris Jenner is a personal friend) to highlight how absurd her world had gotten.

By the satisfying and breathtaking ending of the story, we leave a Kathy Griffin who has a weathered, wry, but ultimately hopeful and optimistic comedic persona. She emerges with an indomitable spirit and a heroic bravery. And an important – and funny – story to tell.

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