Between the two extremes, she points out, in a long acting career spanning more than 60 years, she’s played everything from nuns to missionaries to beaten-down mothers, as well as all those glamorous roles that made her an international star.
Coming soon, though, she warns, is a British-made movie, The Time Of Their Lives, which will show Joan Collins warts and all. ‘I’m playing a singer and actress whose career has gone downhill since her success in the 60s and 70s. I’m a drunk, and I don’t wear a scrap of make-up. Oh, and I have to sing My Way, because I’m always telling people that Frank Sinatra and I used to sing it in saloons when we had a bit to drink. Actually, that’s a bit of a challenge, so I’ve called on Tim Rice, the executive producer, for help with that.’
‘This is a woman who is beaten down by life. She’s at the end of her tether. It’s as if she’s had the first course and the second course of her meal, which were fine. And now she’s going onto the dessert and there’s nothing else to look forward to. It’s the end of the road and she has one lifeline which she discovers when she goes on a trip to find something... But I mustn’t spoil the story. I can bring things to the role that I can use. There have been times in my own life when I’ve felt I’ve been beaten down. My character, Helen, lets it get to her, but I’ve never let it get to me.’
‘There was a wonderful line I had to say in Dynasty that I always think of whenever people are trying to attack me. “Don’t mess with Alexis!” I repeat this to myself if trouble rears its ugly head. People are always coming out of the woodwork to try and attack you in some way or other.’
But the smile on her face shows she couldn’t be happier. And the man who has brought that into her life is her fifth husband, Percy Gibson, who she married in great style at London’s Claridge’s hotel in 2002. ‘This is my longest marriage,’ she says. ‘Twelve years. Twelve years a slave! That’s a joke, of course. We laugh a lot. Yes, this is the happiest time of my life because of my marriage with Percy – a wonderful marriage. But I’m not just sitting back happily crocheting and playing with the grandkids. There’s always some sort of problem that unexpectedly comes along. A relationship is something that needs air and water and feeding. You can’t take each other for granted.’
She admits, ‘There have been a lot of mistakes, but I’m like a phoenix and have risen from the ashes. Percy came at the right time in my life. I was ready for a really wonderful, caring man. Someone who not only cares about me but my family as well. I like to have a man in my life I can depend on. I’ve subconsciously always looked for that and I really hadn’t found it before. So I feel he’s my rock. And my family love him. That goes for my sister Jackie, my brother Bill, all my three children and the grandchildren adore him. Percy is the only one of my husbands who’s actually played with the children in the pool – and he enjoys it. Although he says he doesn’t know whether he would have done this if he had his own kids.’
She agrees it would have been enjoyable if she and Percy could have met a little earlier in their lives. Has she perhaps ever wished that they could have had a baby together? ‘Oh I’ve had enough kids – I have three. That’s already more than you’re supposed to have, especially in China!’
Every year, Joan and Percy spend the summer at her magnificent villa with its swimming pool and garden, high above St Tropez, with its view of unspoilt countryside stretching out towards the twinkling Mediterranean. Here they entertain Joan’s family and their closest friends, many of whom are from her world of showbusiness. Liza Minnelli once came to stay and didn’t leave for six weeks! But how do you tell a fellow star they’ve outstayed their welcome? Says Joan drolly, ‘I don’t know, but if you do, please share the secret with me. But I don’t bear grudges, life’s too short.’
Life at Chateau Joan is informal, but runs to her rules. The kitchen is out of bounds to guests. Food is prepared by two staff under Joan’s direction, and served from a buffet in an elegant dining room, with the seating plan drawn up by her, of course. After dinner there are games. ‘We play a game called the Salad Bowl Game because we use salad bowls to hold the names of famous people on slips of paper that the players draw out, and then have to mime until somebody guesses who it is. It’s a mixture of charades and a memory game. When Tracey Emin visited the last time she kept asking if we could play, but we were so busy chatting that we ran out of time.’
Joan herself doesn’t often cook. Her sister Jackie, an accomplished cook, said the only thing she can make is spaghetti Bolognese but pronounces it excellent. ‘I’ve never been accused of accessing a man’s heart through his stomach,’ Joan agrees, adding wickedly, ‘there are far more direct routes.’ But she adds, ‘Of course I can cook, many things. I did raise three children and three stepchildren, after all.’ When she and Percy have an evening in she might whip up a baked potato with caviar and sour cream, or maybe some sausages. That’s about it, because Percy likes her to take things easy. It’s not surprising that she admits she’s ‘high maintenance’.
‘You try keeping up with her,’ Percy tells me. ‘She has the most amazing energy.’ They met in 2000 when she was touring America in a play and Percy was the company manager. Now in addition to looking after their four homes – in London’s Belgravia, Los Angeles, New York and St Tropez – as well as handling their travelling arrangements (you’ll find her sitting up front in first class on her BA flights but she says, ‘It’s a myth that I have an entourage; it’s just Percy and me’), he directs her successful one-woman show, One Night With Joan, which she has taken around the world and which returns to London next month.
In it, she reminisces about the international stars she met in Hollywood, as well as taking questions from the audience. She has a fund of stories, of course. Marlon Brando ‘had animal magnetism, 100 per cent male’. Bette Davis, with whom she worked on 1955’s The Virgin Queen ‘terrified me. To put it mildly, she wasn’t very fond of pretty 20-year-olds, plus that rigid corset, shaven head and hideous ginger wig she wore must have put her in a terribly ratty mood.’ Tony Curtis was ‘a dreadful misogynist. He once called me a very bad word in front of the film crew because I wouldn’t ride to the set with him on a terribly dangerous truck.’
She remembers her first dinner with Elizabeth Taylor. ‘She told me I should always get a present from the director or producer on any movie or play I was doing – that way I’d remember them. I didn’t have her chutzpah, so I never took her advice. She was deliciously wicked that way.’
Paul Newman was one of her favourite men and of Warren Beatty, whom she nearly married, she says, ‘We see each other still, and he’s extremely friendly. The last time he took Percy to one side and told him, “I still love that woman.” He’s very sweet.’ And who was the best kisser? ‘My husband,’ says Joan.
She knew the legendary Lauren Bacall, who died earlier this month, and her husband Humphrey Bogart, from the old Hollywood days. ‘We last met at a Royal Variety Show. I was wearing a fabulous, if slightly over the top, dress as was the fashion then, with large feathers on it. Just before I went on stage she called after me, “Love the feathers, JC!”’
Would she ever be photographed as starkly as Bacall was at the age of 88 with no make-up and grey hair scraped back from her face? ‘I don’t have grey hair. But I have done the no-make-up look a variety of times. I believe in glamour all the way but I would absolutely do it if the part called for it.’
Harking back to the beginning of her Hollywood career, she recalls a story about the time she was deemed to be distinctly unglamorous. She’d won the lead in 1955’s The Girl In The Red Velvet Swing, a part originally meant for Marilyn Monroe. ‘I was 21 and I was to play the most beautiful girl in New York. Imagine! I turned up one day wearing jeans, a T-shirt and no make-up and the director, Richard Fleischer, was horrified. He said, “Oh my God – I can’t look at you. You look hideous.”’ Then he gave her a lecture on how the star of his big movie should appear at all times. ‘Full make-up, a nice dress and white gloves – otherwise you’ll never get anywhere in this business.’
‘I was completely shocked,’ recalls Joan. ‘But some of the other starlets said I did look a bit scruffy. I decided I’d better start smartening up my act.’ How did she feel about being described as a ‘starlet’ back then? ‘Fine, I was at the time.’ It was also at that time that she realised, ‘No one’s born glamorous, but practically anyone can develop glamour.’ Marilyn’s make-up man, Allan Snyder, taught her how to apply cosmetics and since then she’s believed a woman should never go out without foundation to protect her skin, and lipstick, which she considers the most crucial of cosmetics.
Today in the movie business there have been reports that some would-be young actresses have been told they must strip for a role in a scene and make it look as real as possible otherwise they won’t get the part. ‘That’s very sad,’ says Joan. ‘It’s happened to me too.’
She’s such a warm and funny person but I know some people say she prefers male company. ‘Not true. My best friends are all women and I relate much better to women than to men. Of course men do have their uses.’ She once said she believed women were more intelligent than men, does she stand by that? ‘Of course, try having men give birth.’ Does she feel more comfortable with gay men or straight men? ‘There are two kinds of people in the world – fridges and stoves. Fridges suck out the warmth, stoves give it out freely. Gay, straight, male, female – I like stoves.’
She clearly does get on with her sister Jackie, despite rumours to the contrary. ‘People will say what they will say,’ she says. ‘Jackie and I are great friends and love each other dearly.’ But she doesn’t go in for an overdisplay of affection. Preferring to be air-kissed – mwar!, mwar! – than kissed on the cheek, she says, ‘I do find men and some women tend to give crushing handshakes nowadays and I don’t think that’s necessary. A firm handshake is one thing, but a bone-crusher is aggressive. I was brought up to believe you don’t invade another person’s space and that shaking hands passes on germs. I hug all my close friends but there’s too much fake hugging and kissing in the world today.’
She certainly doesn’t like being touched by strangers. Once at London’s Le Caprice restaurant I was escorting her to a taxi when a man shot out from a nearby table, grabbed her wrist and exclaimed, ‘Joan, it’s me. Remember me? Harry.’ ‘I most certainly don’t, and will you please let go of my arm,’ she said, turning on her heels and heading for the exit.
As we relax with a glass of white wine in front of the Majestic Hotel, Percy comes over and tells her that an admirer wants to give her a piece of jewellery. ‘Well, I’m not Zsa Zsa Gabor, but a little bit of jewellery would be acceptable,’ she giggles. It was just along the coast that she was pictured recently dancing away with Percy at a party. ‘Fortunately those photos were quite good, which I can’t always say about photos I’ve had taken of me. But I’m never going to put my enjoyment secondary to whether I’m going to be photographed. I may regret it afterwards but I’d rather enjoy myself than worry.’
It makes you wonder how she finds her energy. ‘I exercise every morning even though sometimes I hate it. I do Pilates as much as I can as I think it’s the best regime. I stretch a lot and use light weights for toning my arms. I mostly do half an hour a day. The human body is amazing. It gives out whatever you put into it.’ She has her own beauty range, Joan Collins Timeless Beauty, which has been a bestseller. ‘I’m no chemist but I was at the ground level talking to the development team about what I was after and what I thought works. I poured my lifetime of beauty experience into it and tested every element from its inception to the finished product.’
After her warts-and-all film The Time Of Their Lives, she’ll revert back to a more characteristically glamorous role in a US-made TV series, The Royals, in which she plays the Grand Duchess of Oxford, mother of Queen Helena (Elizabeth Hurley). She says she won’t retire because she enjoys working too much. ‘I wrote a book called Passion For Life and that’s what I have, a passion for life. We should all grab it.
‘I read an article in which American actor Bryan Cranston said he did five seasons of Breaking Bad and he never has to work again. I thought, “How lucky for you.” I did nine seasons of Dynasty but I never made enough money to never have to work again. That’s the way things have changed in this business. I’m very good at making money. I’m very good at spending money. But I’m very bad with the bit in between, like investments.’
How does she feel, though, about being described as a national treasure? ‘Handle with care,’ says Joan.