Despite moving to Beverly Hills to increase her celebrity and sell more of her romance novels, Jackie Collins was never going to be an insider, using that fact to her advantage when her observation of the world around her led to the massive success of “Hollywood Wives” in which readers hung on every word, trying to guess who the characters were really based on. As Laura Fairrie’s eye-opening biography “Lady Boss: The Jackie Collins Story” reveals, this is just one of the ways in which the real Collins would hide her brilliance in plain sight, turning a life lived in the shadow of her sister Joan, who was obliged to bring her along to clubs, into a lucrative literary career and as salacious as her writing may have been, they were ultimately a product of a keen sense of observation and a vivid imagination.
With complete access to the remarkable archive Collins left behind when she passed away in 2015, Fairrie asks audiences to look a little deeper into a woman who knew how to present herself to the public, a rare author who relished making TV appearances for her books and so fiercely wearing leopard print blazers you would’ve thought she had hunted down the animal herself. The strength she projected, however, was at odds with the power she felt she had in her own life, not only feeling second best in her father’s eyes given the instant success of her sister’s acting career, but struggling through a first marriage in which her husband fell prey to drug addiction and a blissful second that ended in heartbreak when Oscar Lerman died of cancer. As it would turn out, Collins saved some of her most powerful words for her journal, documenting her internal struggle to hold everything together and even with candid interviews with family and friends, her voice rises above, both more intimate than her legions have fans have likely heard before yet the same level of tantalizing details.
With the film premiering at the Tribeca Film Festival en route to its debut later this month stateside on CNN, Fairrie along with Collins’ daughters Rory Green and Tiffany Lerman shared how they came together to tell of a life as adventurous and interesting as the characters she created, how she was a natural documentarian in her own right and how the film helped the family cope with her untimely death.
How did this come about?
Laura Fairrie: It came about because I was looking to make another film with John Battsek, the producer, but I had decided to really focus on female stories. I was looking for a story about a fabulous woman — I had it in my head, “A fabulous woman! An inspiring story!” and John said to me, “Well, that’s incredible. How about Jackie Collins? Her daughters have just contacted me and they’d love a film made about her.” That was the beginning of it because, having read Jackie’s books as a teenager myself, I was immediately incredibly excited about it because I had this wonderful connection to her.
How did the family come into this?
Rory Green: After our mother died, we realized she had left this quite epic archive behind. She saved everything and hand-wrote all of her manuscripts. We knew that every iteration of every manuscript was there, but we also found every letter she had ever received, thousands of photographs and her journals and all her press clippings, so it was just amazing. There was so much story in there and she had also just started to write her autobiography, so we knew she wanted her story told. We thought particularly because our mother was such a compelling person when she was being interviewed and she was drop-dead beautiful, we thought, wouldn’t it be wonderful instead of piecing together the autobiography, which we still hope to do, we’d like to have a film made about her life because there was just so much story to tell that people didn’t know about.
Laura Fairrie: It was incredible. Rory, Tiffany and Tracy said they had all this archive, so we knew there was some, but it wasn’t until I went to Tiffany’s house in Los Angeles and walked in and they just had a room with boxes piled up, full of Jackie’s personal letters. It was an absolute privilege as a filmmaker to have such an extraordinary breadth of material and so many different opportunities to tell her story in different ways and to bring her story to life. Of course, it was a genuinely meaningful connection to who she was and her private self and that’s what I was looking for as a filmmaker, telling the surprising and moving and honest story of Jackie Collins that existed behind the facade that she so brilliantly created.
There’s so an extraordinary amount of home movie footage – was filming around the house something that was part of life in the Collins’ household?
Tiffany Lerman: Our mother had a camera in her hand all the time. We liked to say that she created tagging a friend on Facebook before Facebook ever existed because she would take a camera with her to any event they would go to, let’s say, it’s a party with friends and she would take pictures of everybody and then she’d come home and she’d send the photos out to be developed. The photos would come back and she’d put them in envelopes, she’d put the name of who’s in the photo on the envelope and then she’d hand the photographs to her friends, so that was a form of tagging friends on Facebook before that was even a thing.
Rory Green: Yeah, she was a documentarian of her own life. She was always behind the camera and our father [Oscar] also. When she wasn’t behind the camera, he was.
Was there any piece of archival that sent you off in a direction you hadn’t expected?
Laura Fairrie: The first thing to me that was really thrilling and gave me real insight about Jackie was to hold her teenage diaries, which to read for any person is an extraordinary thing, but to hold Jackie Collins’ teenage diaries where she had this incredible work ethic from such a young age — she wrote something every single day for five years. How many of us as a teenager started a diary and wrote a few entries and didn’t continue? Jackie wrote something every single day for five years and they were this absolutely beautiful and brilliant insight into who she was as a young person and what made her into the person she went onto become. That was just this absolutely beautiful and thrilling beginning to telling her story.
Tiffany Lerman: It was lovely to see the teenage diaries come to life like they did and when we found them, we were surprised. As Rory said, she kept so much, so it was lovely to find that part of her. It’s made us feel much closer to her. She was such an incredible mother and she is so missed in our family.
Rory Green: We wanted our mother to be portrayed as a more dimensional person. So often she was reduced or dismissed, often in the media and people who perhaps hadn’t read her work or weren’t particular fans or readers, so one of the goals of our film was to portray her as this dimensional woman, who reached these huge heights of success, but also encountered a lot of struggles along the way. We wanted her to become more real to people, and as our sister Tracy talks about, the traumas she had encountered in her life and the tenacity and the adversity and how she just kept going and kept picking herself back up despite everything that was happening for her.
Laura, was this tough to crack structurally? You had this idea of her building her armor over time.
Laura Fairrie: It was difficult, but I always had a very clear idea that that’s what the film had to center around — the public persona, the facade, the suit of armor, the leopard print shoulder pads and the private, vulnerable woman that existed behind that — so that was a very clear direction for the vision of what the movie was going to be, but when you’ve got that much archive, so many interviews, a complex human story that spans a whole life, it was a struggle to mold. I worked with an absolutely brilliant editor Joe Carey, who really helped me and we had post-it notes all over the walls of the edit and lots of things are moved around. It’s cracking that jigsaw puzzle of filmmaking.
One of the great elements of this is how you’ll interview everyone separately so you see how people’s memories overlap and show how Jackie made them feel as if they had a unique relationship to her. Was it always the plan to isolate people in that way?
Laura Fairrie: Yeah, for me, in its most simplest form, this was the story of a storyteller, so I wanted Jackie’s closest friends and family and colleagues who are almost the narrators of the film to tell their own stories, their own version of the truth. When I sat down to interview them, I was always think “tell your tale about Jackie” and I really loved the idea of juxtaposing [the interviews because] sometimes there’s contradictory stories with each other and those complexities and contradictions arrive at a truth.
What’s it like getting this out into the world?
Rory Green: It’s incredibly exciting and one of the things that we felt so strongly after she died is we really wanted to honor her legacy. She entrusted us with her archive, she chose to leave it all behind. We had such a close, connected relationship with her, so [making this] has kept her alive all these years that we’ve been working on the film alongside Laura, going through the archive and sharing pieces of her. I always say she’s still very present in her absence, so it’s almost helped us with our grieving process, but we’re so excited to share her story, particularly that we’re here at Tribeca to share her story with New Yorkers. She loved New York. It was one of her favorite cities and then just to share her story with the wider world and we think it’s beautiful for the people who already admire her — she had millions of readers all over the world — but we like the idea of introducing her to a new generation of readers that perhaps has never heard of Jackie Collins before and they can discover her through this.
“Lady Boss: The Jackie Collins Story” is available to stream through the Tribeca Film Festival until June 23rd. It will air on CNN on June 27th at 9 pm EST.