Behind the Shoulder Pads by Joan Collins – Review
By Roger Crow
At first glance, Behind the Shoulder Pads, the latest book from Joan Collins, looks like it’s going to be an account of her early life and rise to stardom. And there’s an element of that in the early chapter as she recounts growing up, looking after baby sister Jackie, and innocently telling her folks that war had been declared. Protected from the horrors of the real world, Joan and Jackie adjusted to life as evacuees, and were shocked one day to find their home had been bombed by the enemy.
But then, in the blink of an eye, Joan has decided to become an actress, and a couple of blinks later, she’s contracted to Hollywood, where she’s mingling with some of the biggest stars in Tinseltown. This feels like an autobiography written from The Time Machine. One flip of a button and Joan is decades ahead from where she was, but that’s been her life for decades now. Insanely glamorous stories from one of Blighty’s most glam thesps and raconteurs.
One of the most interesting chapters is four, That’s the Way It Is. A kiss-and-tell section in which Joan names some of the predatory actors and film makers who tried to kiss her or go further, and when she deflected their advances, was usually insulted or given the cold shoulder for the rest of that project. That’s if she landed the project. There’s a beautiful clang as she drops Marilyn Monroe’s name, and memories of run-ins with George Peppard, who was apparently first choice to star in the TV show Oil. Eventually John Forsythe got the part of Blake Carrington, and the title became Dynasty, a show which of course gave Joan a new lease of life in Hollywood. More of which later.
Following her adventures in Acapulco, and one incident which left her shocked, there’s a chapter on pregnancy and the right to choose whether or not to have an abortion. Joan recalls the time she fell pregnant and told her then-boyfriend Warren Beatty, who apparently uttered the classic line “Pregnant? How did that happen?”
The packaging for Joan’s book may look like a candy-coloured confection filled with juicy gossip, but her thoughts on unwanted pregnancy are the bitterest pill at the centre of the ‘sweet wrapping’.
And many may judge her for a decision based on wanting to continue her movie career rather than have the baby and maybe just ‘settle’ for a life in theatre. This section is not for the faint of heart, and the horrific reality of what one poor woman went through in Mexico is recounted with the same vivid detail as a nightmare Joan had about her own experience surrounding the abortion.
Collins wraps the whole chapter up with that famous quote from Edith Piaf, which feels like saying: “I just went through one of the most traumatic experiences of my life. Oh well, that’s life.” Only as Joan loves to hammer a point home, there’s usually an over abundance of exclamation marks.
Later, more name-dropping (because why wouldn’t you?), and an anecdote about Jackie being seduced by Marlon Brando. Clang. Brando apparently used to visit Joan’s house a lot and eat all of her ice cream. But in another one of those jaw-dropping moments, she recalls the time James Dean took her for a drive in his car, and put his foot down. Despite a warning not to go, Joan ignored the advice and one white-knuckle ride later, thought “Never again”. Given Dean’s life-ending car crash shortly after, she didn’t get the chance. Thankfully for her.
There’s an interesting story about making a film with the now much-missed Harry Belafonte, and the perils of having an inter-racial relationship at the time which might have affected her career. Apparently she changed her mind. Make of that what you will, though you don’t need to be Sherlock Holmes to guess what happened.
Within about half a page, she’s engaged to Warren Beatty; her beloved mother died, and then the planned marriage to Beatty is off and she’s dating Anthony Newley. Blimey, there’s little danger of getting bored with this book.
Jackie’s own relationship at the same time with an unsavoury character also gets a brief mention. She’s eight months pregnant; he knocks her to the ground, Joan kicks off. He’s dead from an overdose.
The rapid-fire anecdotes remind me of that old Steven Wright gag. “I was just involved in a speed-reading accident. Hit a bookmark. Careered right off the page.” (A joke so subtle, the studio audience on a 1980s BBC2 show didn’t get it because it was so fast).
Anyway, she marries Newley and the brilliantly named Cappy Badrutt is her maid of honour.
“Bursting with great stories”
In another blink of an eye, she and Tony have two kids, Joan wants to get back into acting, swaps agents, and lands parts in shows like Batman and Star Trek. As a side note, Joan doesn’t just land a bit part in Trek, but plays a key role in what many fans believe is the best episode of the original 79-episode run, ‘City on the Edge of Forever’.
The Dynasty years proves to be a fascinating chapter as Joan reveals how she was brought into the US soap to boost ratings. Alexis Carrington was of course an eighties icon, but it was Joan and a beloved costume designer* who fought to create that look which was soon emulated by the rest of the female cast.
* You’ll never look at a toothbrush the same way following his quip to Joan after rushing off for an important ‘meeting’.
Joan also recalls her assorted on-screen relationships, including one of Alexis’s beaus who wore a Wonderbra as a gag, which was definitely not in the script.
Alexis may have been a savvy businesswoman who kept an eye on her finances, but (literally) poor Joan was so naive in those early days that most of the cash she earned as a young actress was apparently pinched by unscrupulous white-collar thieves.
And every time she mentions sister Jackie, I can’t help be reminded of French and Saunders when Dawn and Jen sent the Collins sisters up royally with their BBC sketch “Lucky bitches.”
By 1993, with Joan and Jackie uber successful in their respective fields, they are sent a tape of said sketch and love it. Funny that despite all the millions in the bank and assorted awards, it takes French and Saunders to underline the fact that Joan and Jackie Collins have really made it in showbiz.
And that’s just the tip of Joan’s anecdotal iceberg. There’s plenty more where that came from, but you’ll have to discover all the other amazing stories for yourself.
I’d love to have read Behind the Shoulder Pads in its correct setting: on a beach in St Tropez, or maybe poolside at a swanky hotel, but it wouldn’t have had the full effect. In rain-lashed, cold, dark Yorkshire, it transports you to those exotic climes, and though hardly a rags-to-riches story, it’s just bursting with great stories, gossip, occasionally touching memories, and above all is a fine tribute to one of Blighty’s brightest stars.
Dames. There’s nothing like them, and there’s certainly nothing like Dame Joan Collins, who brightens the dullest autumn or winter with a gem of a book.
In fact it’s a wonder the pages weren’t made from Superglue as I had such a hard time putting it down.
‘Behind the Shoulder Pads: Tales I Tell My Friends’ by Joan Collins is published by Orion