On 4th June, we put out a call for writers/critics to write an article for us on the feature documentary ‘Lady Boss: The Jackie Collins Story’, directed by Laura Fairrie and produced by Passion Pictures and BBC Arts/Two.
We were looking for a fresh perspective on the film and the lead subject, and we had a lot of submissions – many of which were wonderful. In the end, we could only commission one. Here it is.
were wonderful. In the end, we could only commission one. Here it is.
Lady Boss Tells a Brand New Story About Jackie Collins
Hailed as a ‘feminist icon’ by some and known for putting female desire at the forefront of her work at a time when that was controversial, Jackie Collins left a lasting impression on audiences across the world. Lady Boss seeks to peel back this version of Jackie, providing an in-depth exploration of a woman who was far more complex than her public persona suggested.
Using home videos, diary entries and the testimony of many of Jackie’s family and friends, the story of Jackie’s life is re-told, this time with the inclusion of missing private anecdotes, allowing the viewer to understand how the figure of Jackie Collins came into being. Known for her ‘Girls can do anything!’ catchphrase, Jackie carefully constructed her own public persona as a symbol of strength against the difficulties she faced. Lady Boss’ director, Laura Fairrie, says that this success at myth-making was part of what drew her to Jackie’s story, stating that the persona was created ‘partly to survive in a man’s world but also partly because she was ahead of her time in understanding that if she could be identified like the characters in her book and women could see her as this all-powerful woman dressed in some leopard print and big hair, that would help sell her books.’
Expelled from high school at the age of 15, Jackie is given an opportunity that isn’t presented to many; the chance to join her older sister Joan in Hollywood. After making the move, Jackie becomes privy to the lives of the rich and famous, regularly partying with the likes of Marlon Brando and Judy Garland. A naturally shy and curious girl, Jackie begins to document her experiences in her personal diaries, all dated and archived to this day, becoming an observer of a world that was deemed desirable by many, though as we know now, was not always a safe environment for women.
The documentary presents the vulnerable side of a woman whose persona allowed her a sense of protection from the scrutiny that often comes with fame. Having grown up receiving ample criticism from her father and then moving into the shadow of her older sister Joan, writing became a cathartic process for Jackie, bringing release during her most difficult moments. This writing tracked her private struggles, following her first marriage and its subsequent breakdown as her husband Wallace Austin became severely ill, subjecting Jackie to abuse in the process, who was also raising her first child and dealing with her mother’s cancer diagnosis, which her father had forbidden the family from discussing elsewhere. Jackie felt trapped for some time, unsure of what she could do as a woman with no money and no job, with Wallace threatening to kill himself should she leave. Eventually she gathered the courage to do so, pursuing a divorce. Unfortunately, Wallace followed through with his threat, dying by suicide not too long after.
Recovering from this pain sparked something in Jackie that wouldn’t be extinguished for the rest of her life – a desire to build a life that provided the financial security needed to protect herself from the whims of men, as well as a public persona that would be impenetrable by anyone who didn’t know her personally. Her books became the expression of this goal and after some time, and on the encouragement of her second husband Oscar Lerman, Jackie wrote and published her first novel, The World is Full of Married Men. The book’s success surpassed the expectations of all involved, reaching best-selling lists not long after release. Jackie began to carve a place for herself in the world that offered her an independent source of wealth, but also opened her up to a lot of public criticism.
Publishing her first novel in 1968, Jackie’s writing landed itself in the middle of what is now described as ‘the sexual revolution.’ This had an impact on the reception to Jackie’s novels since they primarily dealt with women’s sexual agency and what Jackie hoped were ‘strong women’ who refused to bow to the desires of men if it didn’t meet their own needs or wants. Using her novels to promote these ideas to other women in the hope that they might be able to claw back some of their own agency both in sexual matters and in life seemed to work successfully, with many of the documentary’s participants noting how often women thanked Jackie for her work.
Whilst shifting ideologies seemed to pre-occupy the time of Jackie’s success, there were many who were morally opposed to the kind of sexual freedom that Jackie presented. In a now famous interview from 1987, fellow writer Barbara Cartland stated that Jackie’s books were part of an ‘evil’ that was terrorising the U.K. The documentary shows how Jackie’s persona–consisting mostly of animal print, big hair and bigger shoulder pads–acted as a shield against this treatment, but also ensured the public never caught a glimpse of her vulnerability, even after the death of her second husband or in the weeks before her own death. Jackie fought tirelessly for her books, and herself, to be taken seriously, perhaps seeking to solidify in public a model of female strength she had struggled to attain for herself after multiple traumatic experiences.
Following the success of her books and her desire to provide women with the courage to take ownership of their sexual desires, I hope that viewers will use Collins’ feminism as a stepping stone to something greater. There are the seedlings of feminism here, and Jackie should be remembered for her impact on conversations around female agency, but we should also be conscious of the limits of choice feminism, or more specifically, white feminism. Nonetheless, the Lady Boss documentary allows us to uncover the parts of Jackie that were kept staunchly hidden from the public, presenting a multi-dimensional view of a woman who was often ridiculed for the persona she chose to share.
Jodie is a London-based freelance writer with previous bylines in The Huffington Post and The Bookseller who has written about feminism before as well as having written film reviews for feminist publications such as Bitch Media. She recently finished her MA in Modern Languages, Literature and Culture at King’s College London where she regularly researched and discussed feminist theory and works of feminist literature.
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