With all the recent media coverage of Hollywood’s golden years, it’s easy to be reminded of the era’s biggest scandals and biggest stars. But there was plenty more to life in the ‘70s than just celebrity and scandal. For one thing, we had a much more relaxed social atmosphere. People were friendlier. Professionalism wasn’t quite as esteemed. And there were more opportunities for everyone.
One of the most prominent figures from that time is undoubtedly Joan Collins. The prolific actress, singer, and fashion icon was at the forefront of the social revolution that swept Hollywood in the ‘70s. She embodied much of what was new and exciting about that era, and she remains one of its most recognizable and iconic representatives today.
In honor of the actress’ 101st birthday today, let’s take a journey back to the golden days of Hollywood in the ‘70s.
Power, Prestige, And Money
One of the first things you’ll notice about Collins is how much she had going on. In addition to a thriving acting career and a design business, Collins also owned and operated a recording studio. And that was just the beginning. She was a real-life powerhouse, a veritable Renaissance woman. Even her most ardent fans could only marvel at her talent and achievement.
She made her first foray into acting in the early 1950s, landing bit roles in B-grade films. But Collins’ big break came in the form of a supporting role in the groundbreaking 1959 film Madam Cinderella. She had been expecting a role in the classic Cinderella tale, but the script went off-book, and Collins found herself playing a maid. It was an experience that would change her life.
In Madam Cinderella, Collins portrays a young woman named Rosette, who works for an unforgiving French Countess (Dame Anna Neagle). But Collins’ real-life counterpart, the Countess Elsa, had a much kinder and more understanding attitude toward servants. She allowed Collins the courtesy of a trial period, and gave her the opportunity to grow as a person and an actress in addition to honing her craft. After completing her three-month term, Collins became a full-time maid for Countess Elsa. She took the role seriously, and devoted herself to her work and to helping others. This would set the stage for Collins’ later transformation into the glamorous, sophisticated woman we know today. She is often credited with creating the character of “The Countess.”
This is a character that Hollywood would come to know and love. Elsa is a countess, but she isn’t the snobbish type. She is more of an everywoman. She has a kind heart and is willing to let bygones be bygones. She is a much more approachable and relatable character than the aristocrats we usually see portrayed in films.
Despite having a more modern approach to life, the countess still holds some antiquated notions. For instance, she believes that women should be seen and not heard. And, of course, she is a snob when it comes to social distinctions. Elsa is married to the Count (Paul Burke), an aristocrat whose family is rivalrous with that of the British royal family. His family is one of the old, established European noble lines. The feud between the two families is a running theme throughout the series. But that’s enough of an introduction. Let’s get to the good stuff.
The Glorious ‘70s
If you didn’t live in the UK, you may not know that it was a tumultuous time in that country’s history. Since the mid-‘70s, there had been steady growth in popularity of punk, new wave, and hair bands. When Madam Cinderella aired in Britain in the summer of 1959, it marked the beginning of a period of cultural upheaval. Film critics and historians alike have since deemed it the “British cinema moment.”
It wasn’t just Britain that embraced this change in attitude. The ‘70s were a time of cultural transformation in Hollywood too. The traditional film studio system was giving way to small production companies, and independent film-makers were looking for ways to stand out from the crowd. In addition to being a trailblazer in design, Collins helped pioneer this new style, and it’s clear that she felt empowered by this new world of opportunity. She often expressed her commitment to feminism, and said that she didn’t want to be defined by her gender. She wanted to be seen as an actress first and foremost.
In 1973, Collins appeared in the British spy spoof A View To a Kill. She plays a glamorous, triple-X spy whom James Bond (Sean Connery) reluctantly befriends. Collins would later say that she found the experience of playing a woman of violence and mystery “very liberating.” The following year, she would land the role of Ursula Andress in the iconic sci-fi film The Man From UNCLE. Andress, the original “Manicure” woman, had originally been offered the role of a Bond woman; she turned it down as she wanted to keep her “manicure.” But Collins’ performance as Ursula in the 1974 film adaptation of E. L. Wives is said to have saved her career. Some have even gone as far as to say that it established Collins as “the queen of the occult.”
While we’re on the subject of famous ladies who worked in Hollywood in the ‘70s, let’s not forget about Elizabeth Taylor. The iconic actress turned fashion designer had launched her own production company, focusing on high-end fashions for women. It was through this company that she became involved in the legal proceedings that would eventually lead to her divorce from tycoon and actor Robert Taylor. Taylor was granted sole custody of their two children, Elizabeth and John. She would later marry Richard Burton, whom she had met while filming The Nutcracker Suite. Collins and Taylor remain good friends to this day.
Collins continued to star in films in the ‘70s and ‘80s, with several major roles in between. She also became an important figure in the horror world. Though not always in a pleasant light. In 1977, she starred in the infamous film The Postman Always Rings Twice. The following year, she would play a psychotic, cannibalistic woman named Elsa in Jimmy Dean’s The Family that Preys. In 2014, she starred in the horror film Annabelle, a role for which she won a Razzie Award for Worst Actress. But she wasn’t always playing vile characters. Not long after The Postman Always Rings Twice came out, Collins fell in love with, and married, director John Fremont. The couple had three children together, before divorcing in 1975. They remain cordial to this day.
One of the most interesting films Collins starred in during this period was the 1977 musical Is She Going To Model? The film documents the early days of supermodel Grace Jones, focusing on the time when she first arrived in Hollywood and was still finding her feet. It’s an incredibly fun film, and it shows a very different side of Collins. Here, she is playing another kind of character. The provocative fashion icon is showcased in all her glory, and it’s clear that director John Derek wanted to celebrate female beauty and empowerment. If you haven’t seen it, it’s worth a watch. It’s not often that we get to see a movie about a fashion icon, and it’s even less often that we get to see a movie directed by a woman. It’s an important reminder of how far we’ve come, and of how much more we can achieve.
The Feminist Princess
Throughout her career, Collins’ politics were always a matter of public record. Though she was never overtly political, she did support several important social causes, such as animal rights and feminism. In 1977, she established the charitable organization Women In Need. As part of the effort, she visited Africa to raise money for women’s empowerment projects. She also worked with People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) to bring attention to the cruel treatment of animals in laboratories and in the entertainment industry. Collins is also widely credited with popularizing the phrase “All women are beautiful” in the early 1970s. She has often cited her friendship with singer and actor Jane Wyman as a key influence in her life. Though she has always been known for her friendship with Wyman, it was in fact her friendship with feminist icon Phyllis Schlafly that helped her to become more politically active. Collins grew up in the shadow of World War II, and she knew all too well the harmful effects of nuclear radiation on humans. As a result, she was deeply concerned about the growing nuclear threat, and in particular about the growing “Menace of Mutilation” as she called it in her book I’m Still Standing (1981).