How Joan Collins put the ‘nasty’ in Dynasty

  • Oops!
    Something went wrong.
    Please try again later.
·12-min read
In this article:
  • Oops!
    Something went wrong.
    Please try again later.
The most hated woman on television: Joan Collins as Alexis Carrington in Dynasty - Getty
The most hated woman on television: Joan Collins as Alexis Carrington in Dynasty - Getty

Over the course of the American soap opera Dynasty, many memorable characters featured in the torrid tale of the lives and romantic entanglements of the Carrington family. None, however, could quite compare to the series’ stand-out figure, Alexis Carrington. Even for those who have never seen the show, Alexis has become a byword for Machiavellian scheming and sexual skullduggery, delivering caustic one-liners over a glass of champagne as she schemes and sashays her way through yet another advantageous adventure. As another character remarks of her, “For Alexis, death is always a simpler solution than divorce.”

The actress who played Alexis, Joan Collins, took the part in 1981. She was a Rada-trained performer who had begun her career in the 1950s with appearances in such big-budget Hollywood epics as Land of the Pharaohs and The Virgin Queen. Her days as a major film star ended in the early 1960s, however, when she was passed over for the title role in Cleopatra, which went to Elizabeth Taylor, and she drifted into self-parody and undistinguished television appearances throughout the next two decades, reaching her nadir in the 1977 shlock monster film Empire of the Ants.

Yet a renaissance was soon at hand. In 1978, she took the title role in the adaptation of her sister Jackie’s novel The Stud, which was a considerable box-office hit, as was its hastily produced sequel The Bitch. Joan’s autobiography Past Imperfect was a bestseller, and so she began the 1980s with a reputation both as a bankable star and as someone who brought an air of decadence and glamour to whatever parts she was offered. And Dynasty, created by the prolific producer Aaron Spelling, was nothing if not both decadent and glamorous.

Inspired both by Robert Graves’ novels I, Claudius and Claudius the God – and, from a less highbrow perspective, the hugely successful CBS show Dallas – the idea behind Dynasty was to tell the saga of the all-powerful, amoral Carrington clan, who “lived and sinned” from an enormous mansion in Denver. It was fortunate timing on Spelling’s part to have created a series that would chime with the capitalist, “greed-is-good” mantra of Reaganite America and Thatcherite Britain, and to have created iconic characters who audiences, quite literally, loved to hate.

And none was more lovably loathsome than Alexis, whose scheming ruthlessness drove the programme’s narrative from her entrance in the first episode of the second series, entitled, appropriately, ‘Enter Alexis’. It made Collins both a household name and a legend.

Collins with Dynasty co-stars John Forsythe and Linda Evans - Getty
Collins with Dynasty co-stars John Forsythe and Linda Evans - Getty

Unfortunately, her memories of the show are less than positive. She commented in 2019 to Attitude that “there was a lot of resentment” from the rest of the cast because of her higher status, and said of her co-star John Forsythe, who played her screen ex-husband Blake Carrington: “There wasn’t a lot of love lost between [many of] us, particularly John.”

She has written with great candour about her behind-the-scenes experiences in her memoirs Second Act, The World According to Joan and Passion for Life. But now, in the new feature-length documentary This Is Joan Collins, broadcast on New Year’s Day on BBC2, she has revisited her time on the show with all the witty vitriol that has seen her become a much-celebrated grande dame of stage and screen.

After her appearances in The Bitch and The Stud, she became half-complicit with the industry’s objectification of her. A typical television interview began with the journalist Ian Woolridge saying: “Joan, as you sit there, being who you are, and what you are, and looking – if I may say so – gorgeous, millions of men would love to jump into bed with you.” The exaggerated look of surprise on Collins’s face, perhaps at the effrontery of the statement, was only equalled by Woolridge’s question: “Does that give you a feeling of great power?” In fact, as she comments today, “I bore the brunt of sizzling fury, as if a woman over 40 semi-nude was something truly shocking.”

As Woolridge stated, with barely concealed lasciviousness: “You in fact are a sex symbol – do you accept that?” Collins demurely replied “Well, I think that’s just a part of what I am”, before saying “I don’t think that there’s anything wrong with being beautiful, glamorous, well-dressed, well-groomed and sexually attractive…if God was kind enough to give you those things, I think you might as well appreciate them, and not hide your light under a bushel, as it were.” Nor she was devoid of a sense of humour about such things. When one over-excited interviewer asked her if men who met her mentally undressed her, she laughed and said: “They’ve already seen it all, why would they want to do so again?”

Collins weaponised her own objectification - Getty
Collins weaponised her own objectification - Getty

The line between Joan Collins, sexually provocative film star, and Alexis Carrington, ball-breaking man-eater, was a fine one, and the actress was happy to blur it further, if it would advance her career in the right direction. She comments today that “I discovered that the part of a sultry, sexy b---h was one that the public loved, and actually believed in.” She had been voted the sexiest woman in the world (“Hurrah”, she quips now) and was therefore the only conceivable casting for Alexis, being someone who was greeted with as many wolf-whistles as flashbulbs at film premieres.

Yet, after her daughter Katy was involved in a devastating accident that nearly killed her, and Collins discovered that she was heavily in debt due to her husband’s deceptions, it was time to look for well-paid work, and throw herself into what would become her defining role.

As Collins describes it now, her agent’s pitch was effusive. “Joanie, have you ever heard of Dynasty? It’s a bit like Dallas, and it’s a great role. Her name is Alexis. She’s a b____, but brilliantly smart.” The actress had not heard of the show from its first series, as it had only been a moderate ratings success in America, and had yet to find any audience overseas. She had no great desire to take a long-running role in an ongoing drama, preferring guest parts, but was attracted by the chance of spending six months in California with her recuperating daughter, rather than the English winter. Still, as she drily put it: “That six months turned into nine years.”

She believed that she was at least third choice for the part, after (once again) Elizabeth Taylor and Sophia Loren, but once she won it, she became it. She was allowed to play Alexis as an Englishwoman, even as her agent worried that middle America would find her accent incomprehensible, and demonstrated her perfect Rada diction. Collins knew that Alexis as written was “somewhat clichéd”, but saw that there was the potential to bring out the arch humour from the character, helped by such lines as: “Nobody takes me to the cleaners and to bed in the same day.”

Within three months, she had proudly established herself as “the most hated woman on television”. As one chatshow host quipped: “When you see Joan Collins on that show, you know who put ‘nasty’ in Dynasty.” She was amused to be recognised in the street by small children, who would wave enthusiastically while saying “Alexis, Alexis! We hate you!’”

Collins with Sydney Chaplin in Land of the Pharaohs - Alamy
Collins with Sydney Chaplin in Land of the Pharaohs - Alamy

Even as she complained to Spelling and the screenwriters as to how poor her dialogue was – and consequently being allowed to rewrite it – she described the character as “strong, and assertive, and a big b____…but that’s OK.” As one newspaper headline of the time put it: “Being bad is good business for Joan Collins.” Unimaginative journalists now dubbed her “the superb____”, but Collins did not consider Alexis a simple villain. As she said, “The reason why women admire her is that she says, ‘This is what I’m going to do, and nothing is going to stop me. If a man can do it, I can do it.’”

Her appearance sent the show to the top of the ratings, to the chagrin of Collins’s co-star Forsythe, who considered himself Dynasty’s main attraction. Contractually, he was front-and-centre of any publicity photographs, but it was Collins who drew all the attention. The producers tried everything they could to capitalise on Alexis’s notoriety, not least an ongoing storyline exploring the rivalry between her and her nemesis Krystle, played by Linda Evans.

Once again, on-screen antipathy spilled over into real-life mutual disdain, and Collins remarks that, during one of the many fight scenes that the two shared, she discovered that Evans “had a right hook like Tyson” when a fist not-so-accidentally connected with her head. But the momentary injury was swiftly outweighed by the electrifying effect that their pugnacity had on screen.

Over 150 million viewers watched the exploits of Alexis every week, and Collins became as much a household name in the United States as she had ever been in Britain. It must have gratified her that one newsreader commented: “Joan Collins was once called the poor man’s Elizabeth Taylor. Well, not any more.”

There was even a limited edition doll made of her, priced at $10,000, as she enjoyed all the trappings of mega-celebrity: a waxwork at Madame Tussaud’s, turning on the Christmas lights at Regent Street and a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. She even won a Golden Globe in 1983 for her performance, remarking: “The last time I won an award was for Most Promising Actress in 1957, so it’s taken me a bit of time.”

Real-life celebrities queued up to make cameos as themselves, including President Ford and Henry Kissinger. Donald Trump, then best known for being a real-estate mogul, tried and failed to ingratiate himself onto the show, announcing: “I would be great as one of Alexis’s lovers.” One wonders if he hoped that life would imitate art; it is a shame that the ball-busting Alexis was not unleashed upon him.

Collins remarks today that “it was the right show for the right time…it had beautiful people, beautiful clothes, beautiful sets, real flowers, real caviar…and real anger behind the scenes, from some of us.” It helped that she personally thrived on her status as a 1980s icon (“I love Gordon Gekko!”) and fully embraced the consumerist and material ethos that the show depicted. Off-screen, she revelled in “one long spending spree”, buying mansions and jewellery and haute couture with abandon.

Yet as the decade wore on, she knew that fame remained as fickle as it ever was. As she says: “I had been at that rodeo before.” Her personal life was miserable, as her marriage to former Beatles manager Ron Kass fell apart, and a short-lived fourth union with the Swedish pop singer and playboy Peter Holm (“a sort of male version of Britt Ekland”) failed to bring her happiness, as he ineffectually acted as her manager and, she claims, subjected her to jealous rages.

She posed for Playboy (“the only one of hundreds of magazine covers that I got paid for”) and this outraged Forsythe, who announced to producers that “she’s a disgrace to our fine show!” He was reminded very publicly in 1986 that Collins, not he, was the real star of Dynasty, when she accepted the People’s Choice Award for most popular show; she referred to him, ironically, as “the big boss”, as he glowered behind her.

Yet the rules of the industry meant that he was earning substantially more money than her, so she asked for – and was given – an extra $20,000 a week to play Alexis, meaning that she earned $1.5 million a year: a staggering sum for a 1980s television show. Collins today comments that “I learnt a lot from Alexis and her business acumen.”

Collins at her London home in 1983 - Sygma
Collins at her London home in 1983 - Sygma

As the decade drew to an end, Collins was finished with Dynasty. As she writes in her recent book, My Unapologetic Diaries:The show had gone so rapidly downhill both in ratings and audiences that it had turned into a joke, and impossible as an actor to take seriously or to make any sense of the puerile plots and dialogue.”

The issue of pay parity had been solved by writing Alexis out of half the episodes (“while I was now apparently the highest paid TV actress in the world, it was a purely Pyrrhic victory since I would effectively earn the same as before… so much for sexual equality in the industry”), and “a jobsworth lawyer” persuaded her to sign away her residual rights to repeats of the show, on the grounds that “serials don’t sell on syndication”. In April 1989, at the age of 55, Collins left the show that had made her a household name, and her signature role.

Since then, of course, Collins has continued to maintain an eclectic career that has seen her combine acting, writing and iconography. The latter is what defines her today, but she knows that, when the obituaries are written, the headline will forever be “Alexis Carrington actress Joan Collins dies”. But to be responsible for portraying a character that indelible is a singular distinction.

Love her, loathe her or envy her, it is hard not to agree with her remark from This is Joan Collins: “Who wants reality? There’s already too much of it in today’s world. And as they say in showbusiness, that’s not what the public pay for.”

This is Joan Collins is now on BBC iPlayer

Our goal is to create a safe and engaging place for users to connect over interests and passions. In order to improve our community experience, we are temporarily suspending article commenting