Taking a title from one of Jackie Collins’ books, Lady Boss is a documentary about the British author and television personality. It’s easy to scoff at the writing itself, and many have over the years, but Laura Fairrie’s film is at least a trashy, compulsive watch much in the glitz and glam tradition of the books.
A collaboration between BBC Arts and CNN Films, Lady Boss is a straightforward melange of vintage clips and talking heads, notably sister Joan Collins. The storyline follows Jackie as she emerges from the shadow of her film-star sister, and overcomes personal issues (drug-addict husbands, industry chauvinism) to triumph as an inspiration to other women. Unfortunately, this leads to a schism with Joan, principally when Joan starts writing novels of her own, and a number of agents, friends and acquaintances come forth to attest to Jackie’s ground-breaking spirit and mourn her untimely death from breast cancer.
One clip sees Clive James dismissing Jackie Collins’ writing during an interview with Bernard Levin; the intention is to show how Collins was unfairly dismissed by priggish men, but James was something of a trash-humper in terms of his own tastes, in thrall to the Dallas and Dynasty disposable products of the day. Side-effects of watching Lady Boss include making viewers feel prematurely aged when examining historical artefacts in the clip-reel; we see Gloria Hunniford asking tough questions, an appearance on the One Show goes badly, and Collins gets her wheels taken off when her claims to being a feminist are dismantled by an audience of self-declared feminists during a Robert Kilroy audience. What is missing from Lady Boss is any similarly caustic dissection of the novels involved; like many films about writers, Lady Boss will discuss anything but text, and her Harold Robbins-aping prose is given a free pass, somehow emancipating womanhood with every act of fellatio. ‘My women get what they want, in the end,’ Collins says defiantly.
The inadvertent comedy of Lady Boss is considerable, but the ending is feel-bad; Collins had a self-confidence that seems to have led to her keeping a treatable medical condition a secret, and resulting in a tragically early demise. It’s notable that Hollywood ‘friends’ like Michael Caine are featured in archive footage only; it feels like most of the showbiz town Collins love had turned her back on her by the time she needed them. Lady Boss has a terrific subject for a documentary, particularly given the current desire to uncover Hollywood excess, but considerable efforts to fashion Collins as a feminist icon here somehow lack the persuasive evidence required.
Lady Boss screens in select UK cinemas from this weekend, on CNN last month and on BBC 2 later this year. Thanks to Modern Films for access.