Monday, May 21, 2012

The Junk Drawer: Spotlight on Joan Collins

In the super glitzy 1980's, the number one TV series in the world was "Dynasty".

A night time soap opera set in Denver, Colorado, "Dynasty" centered around the colorful Carrington clan, who spent their days plotting, scheming, manipulating and double dealing to their heartless hearts' content. Occasionally they showed up at the office and made a few phone calls, but these folks did their best work flat on their back, if you get my drift.

"Dynasty" was jam-packed with busybody no-good-nicks, but by far the busiest no-good-nick of them all was Blake Carrington's (John Forsythe) vengeful ex-wife Alexis.

As essayed by British actress Joan Collins, Alexis was a sinister glamour puss who never missed an opportunity to make life miserable for Blake and his current missus, the sweet natured Krystal (Linda Evans). When not trying to wreck their marriage or drive Blake's company into the ground, Alexis was marrying a chap on his death bed to get all his money or whopping it up with boy toys several years her junior. Never in the same outfit twice, Alexis wore power suits where the shoulder pads had the wingspan of a 747 and favored evening gowns so loaded down with bugle beads it's a wonder she could even walk upright.

Collins played her role with campy relish and she not only energized "Dynasty", but made herself an international sensation in the process. Junk Cinema fans were not at all surprised by her star turn. See, since the mid-1950's Joan had been perfecting her bitch goddess from Hell persona in a series of films that ranged from big budget studio productions to low rent garbage to quasi-porn, with occasional pit stops on TV.

Along with Yvonne DeCarlo, Beverly Garland and Mamie Van Doren, Joan Collins was one of the most prolific actresses in Junk movies. And while her stint on "Dynasty" remains her most famous credit, bad movie mavens know the bouffant haired vixen (and ex-cuddlemate of Warren Beatty) is capable of so much more. Lets now revisit some of the flicks that made Joan the ageless scene stealer she is today.

"Land of the Pharaohs"(1955) After spending some time at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art and working for the Arthur J. Rank organization, Joan left Britain to sign a contract with 20th Century Fox Studios. This sword and sandals epic about the building of Egypt's mighty pyramids was her big screen debut in America, although she doesn't show up until half-way through the picture.

Pharaoh Jack Hawkins is so obsessed with building the mightiest pyramid of them all, he fails to realize that wife #2 Princess Nellifer (guess who?) is more interested in getting her hands on the truck loads of treasure he plans on taking to the after-life than in him. In a series of machinations that would no doubt do Alexis proud, Nellifer plans to only get rich quick, but become pharaoh, too. Phase One: she gives the Pharaoh's son a flute and teaches him a jaunty tune--neglecting to mention that the song attracts cobras. While the kid is playing away, a slithering cobra drops by. The Pharaoh's first wife saves the tot, but she's deader than a door nail herself. Mission accomplished.

Phase Two: Nellifer picks out a studly palace guard (Sydney Chaplin, another ex-cuddlemate), treats him to the best sex of his life and talks him into offing the Pharaoh for her. He ultimately botches the job, but Joanie has a few more tricks up her sleeve. She stage manages a sword flight between the Pharaoh and her paramour which ends with them both dying, but with her safely on the throne. However, the Pharaoh has a little surprise for Nellifer that she won't soon forget.

The ads for "Land of the Pharaohs" panted up a storm, promising viewers a sneak peek at "the barbarous love that left Egypt's greatest pyramid as its wondrous landmark!" Joan's character, meanwhile, was billed as the type of gal "for whom the seven sins are not enough" and whose "treachery stained every stone of the pyramids!" Alas, the flick was a flop, even though Howard Hawks directed it and William Faulkner (!) wrote the script. Joanie, only 22 at the time, shouldn't be held totally responsible for this dud. In fact, she's the only fun person in the movie, sashaying around the palace in chiffon and high heels, flaring her nostrils and playing every man who crosses her path for the sucker he is. Having proved herself such an adept Nile serpent, it should come as no surprise, then, that 20th Century Fox tested her for the lead in their proposed Cleopatra bio--a part that ultimately went to Elizabeth Taylor.

"The Sea Wife"(1957) Actresses who have reputations as "good girls" always yearn to play baddies to show off their range. Conversely, actresses who have reps as "bad girls" want to play sweetie pies in order to show off their range.

Joan was no different.

Set during the dark days of WW II, "The Sea Wife" finds Joan stranded on a desert island with a black man, a racist and a pre-Elizabeth Taylor Richard Burton. In what was clearly meant to be an allegory about how the will to survive can bring out the best and worst in people, the flick suffers from a bad case of tedium. The only real interest here is seeing Burton fall for the mysterious Joan, who fails to fully explain why she's not into dating at the moment.

Eventually the survivors are rescued and separated, but Burton diligently searches for Joan in post-war London, even leaving messages for her in the newspaper. Sadly, he never learns why they can't reconnect: she's a nun!

See, Sister Joan and a fellow Bride of Christ were shepherding some orphans out of Europe when their boat was hit. In the frenzy of abandoning ship, a tyke rips off Joan's habit to reveal her stylish coiffure. Sister Joan never thinks about re-covering her hair or telling Burton that she's a nun. It would have made things a lot easier, but, then, there would be no movie if she had.

"The Sea Wife" is just the latest in a series of films where nuns are presented as the world's least likely sex symbols. From "Heaven Knows, Mr. Allison" to "The Nun's Story" to "A Change of Habit" to "Two Mules for Sister Sarah", nuns drive men wild with desire (quite by accident, of course), yet the good sisters always manage to stay true to their vows. Ironically, while Joan was playing a nun on screen, she was known around Hollywood at this time by the nickname "The English Open" because of her frisky dating life. Along with Beatty and Chaplin, Collins also had affairs with Harry Belafonte, Nicky Hilton, Arthur Loew, Jr. and would collect five husbands.You go, girl!

"I Don't Want to be Born"(1975) Now we officially enter Joan's Down Years, where her star dimmed considerably and she was forced to toil in a series of schlock-u-dramas to pay the rent and keep her family afloat.

Cast as a sexy night club dancer who lands a wealthy Italian husband, Joan makes the fatal mistake of  spurning the sexual advances of a psychotic dwarf. Bent on revenge, the little fellow curses Joan with "a baby--a monster, an evil evil monster conceived in your womb as big as I am small and possessed by the devil himself!"

Because of "Born"s low budget, viewers don't actually SEE the little nipper in the flesh; you just have to take it from the increasingly stressed out Joan that Junior is unusually big and strong, frightens the neighbors and trashes his nursery. Later on, the tyke will kill his nanny, terrorize the housekeeper and strangle his pop. He also kills mama Joan, even as she pleads, "But I'm your mother!"

It's up to the devil baby's aunt, who happens to be a nun, to save the day. It's she (on a dark and stormy night) who performs the rites of exorcism (or something) on the tot. As she does this, the nasty dwarf who started all the trouble is performing a soft shoe routine. As the nun chants on, the camera cuts back and forth between the screaming baby and the dancing dwarf, who begins to suffer a heart attack. As soon as the evil spirits leave the baby, the dwarf drops dead. The flick ends with the aunt/nun walking into the sunset with the now devil-free baby to begin a new life as...a single mother?

Actors get through movies like "I Don't Want to be Born" thinking less about their character's motivations and more about the paycheck they will be receiving. Poor Joan doesn't get much of a chance to act, but she can take some satisfaction in knowing she contributed to the popular Junk Cinema sub-genre known as Devil Baby Movies. These flicks, which began popping up in the late 1960's, featured women who either gave birth to or unknowingly adopted evil babies who proceeded to wreck all kinds of lethal havoc. In titles like "It's Alive", "The Children", "The Omen" and "The Godsend", nasty tots slaughtered everybody from the delivery room medical staff to the milkman, never realizing that this kind of homicidal behavior is not only bad manners, but will ruin all their chances of getting into a decent preschool.

However, as wretched as "I Don't Want to be Born" is, it's not the worst film Joanie ever appeared in. That honor goes to our next cinematic offering, where the one-time student of the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art must run for her life from mutant, mind controlling super sized ants. Ladies and gentlemen, I give you...

"Empire of the Ants"(1977) If every career must have a nadir, this is Joan's. Not only must she battle fiberglass and chicken wire "ants" (which are viciously thrust at her by off screen stage hands), she had to do her own stunts. This meant Joan had to swim in dirty water dodging real alligators and wound up with icky sores all over her legs. However, with kids to feed, no serious acting offers and husband #3 overly fond of Bolivian Marching Powder, Joan was no position to complain. Thus she gritted her teeth and signed on to Bert I. Gordon's big bug epic "Empire of the Ants"--and no doubt prayed for deliverance from the All Mighty.

Joan is cast in the familiar role of a man eating real estate mogul who bullies her staff and sleeps with boy toys for kicks. She's hoping to score a mega bucks deal hustling resort condos, but her plans are stymied by a bunch of ants the size of Buicks. In case you're curious, the insects got this way by slurping up some radioactive goop that washed up on the shore. Once the buggers reach their full height, they hypnotize the local yokels and force them to toil day and night in a sugar refinery in the service of their queen. "We can all do what the ants want us to do," yammers sheriff Albert Salme'. "Work for them, feed them, that's the way it should be. For the ants are superior."

Naturally, a few humans refuse to submit to this tyranny. They grab a flare from a nearby car and use it to light the ant queen on fire. Her fellow ants leap on top of her to put out the flames, but it's no good. While the smell of bar-b-que ant fills the air, the brain washed humans regain their freedom. Unfortunately, Joan isn't one of them, having received a fatal zap of mind dust and crumbling into a heap on the ground. The end.

Well, not quite. Joan's performance as the terrorized real estate lady from Hell would so impress the Brothers Medved that they would later award their Golden Turkey Award for "The Most Humiliating Performance By A Future TV Star" to Collins in their tome Son of Golden Turkey Awards. Interesting trivia note: Linda Evans, future "Dynasty" co-star, was also nominated in this category for her appearance as Sugar Kane in "Beach Blanket Bingo."

Sadly, "Empire of the Ants" did not revive Joan's flagging career. In fact, the one time 20th Century Fox starlet eventually had to apply for unemployment benefits from the state of California. Lucky for Joan, "Dynasty" was just around the corner, making her both deservedly rich and famous. Seizing upon her second act success with both hands, Joan starred in TV movies, hawked Scoundrel perfume, posed for Playboy magazine, penned romance novels, appeared on Broadway, collected husbands 4 and 5 and became a grandmother.

Joan Collins, Junk Cinema salutes you!