Joan Collins has devoted her life to illusion, so in the third act of her career, why hold back now? Watching her New York nightclub debut at Feinstein’s at Loew’s Regency, it was reassuring to discover she has lost none of the beauty, self-effacing humor or erotic appeal that turned her into the kind of popular, antediluvian icon that is never dated, and woe to the macho adversary or unwise female contestant who challenges her. You can accuse her of hanging on beyond her prime, but if you meet her in a dark alley, bring Mace. I might have thought otherwise if I had not seen her immediately after suffering through a Broadway matinee of Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown, a junk pile of dreck that hideously resembles a garbage strike in downtown Newark. After the trashy pulchritude crashing its way through that train wreck, Joan Collins is as fresh, funny and full of paprika as she was when she burst upon the Cinemascope screen in the 1950s. She’s ageless, and she even does an acrobatic split to prove it.
Let’s face it. The cabaret debut she calls “One Night With Joan” is not really an act at all. It’s more like a one-hour lecture with clothes from Dynasty, curves from Mother Nature and clips from 60 films made in the halcyon days of Hollywood glamour. If you go to Feinstein’s expecting the usual songs from the Great American Songbook, forget it. You’ll hear no silvery cadences, brassy bombast or inventive parlando. You get no illustration of pitch, intonation, tone or lyric interpretation. In fact, Joan Collins doesn’t sing one note (although I’ll bet easy money that she could if she wanted to). What she does is drape herself across a set right out of The Girl in the Red Velvet Swing, consisting of two gold-leaf chairs, a telephone that keeps ringing even after she answers it, a great vase of white Casablanca lilies and a framed photo of herself and Queen Elizabeth, who bestowed upon her an O.B.E. for valiant service in more ways than one. It’s not the same thing as knighthood, so she’s not Dame Joan yet. But show business royalty, to be sure, and don’t you forget it. She won’t let you.
One hour of patter is a mixed bag, a cross between a Hedda Hopper interview and This is Your Life, interspersed with amusing family films of many children from five husbands (Anthony Newley posing nude for posterity was probably not what he had in mind by the pool that day) and cleverly assembled scenes from bad movies like Tales From the Crypt and Empire of the Ants. In the final death-rattle phase of her fading film career before she hit pay dirt with Dynasty, she boldly discusses such historic film classics as The Stud and The Bitch. She sort of discusses her five marriages (husband No. 1 tried to sell her to an Arab sheik for $50,000, and Mr. Newley, her second legal mate, almost destroyed what remained of her acting career by casting her as a censor-baiter called Polyester Poontang); after her fourth divorce, Liz Taylor sent her a letter: “I’m still ahead by three.” She offers no torrid details about her 18-month engagement to Warren Beatty, but her bitchy narratives about Bette Davis, Joan Crawford and Richard Burton are memorable. Bing Crosby was “a grumpy old man who smoked an obnoxious pipe–it was rather like kissing an ash tray!” A photo of double anatomy with Jayne Mansfield on the set of The Wayward Bus prompted them to call their film “the wayward busts.” The only mystery she never solves for a packed house of fans is hastily dismissed with a wave of her manicured nails: “Oscar Wilde said a woman who reveals her age will reveal anything about herself. … I’ve revealed everything but my age.” A femme fatale who constantly reinvents herself, no matter what chapter of her life she’s in at any given time, she is at her best when she observes it objectively, like a Peeping Tom. Rarely have I seen a glamorous feline live so many different lives, land on her feet so many times and have this much fun doing it. Back in the day, there was a good reason Bob Hope always called her a “great broad.”
Brittle, contrived, occasionally shallow but consistently entertaining, “One Night With Joan” runs through Nov. 27. It’s her story, and she’s sticking to it.