Over martinis, Marilyn Monroe warned me about the Wolves of Hollywood and their depraved casting couch... She wasn't wrong! writes JOAN COLLINS
At first I didn’t register who the nondescript blonde sitting alone at the bar was. I had only arrived in Hollywood a few months earlier and was still finding my way.
After a few moments the woman turned to me and said rather sadly: ‘They wanted me to play the lead in The Girl In The Red Velvet Swing, but I’m too old.’
The film she’d mentioned was my first starring role since arriving in the US aged 20. It suddenly dawned on me that this pale-faced woman was the fabled Marilyn Monroe.
She was extremely friendly, so we started chatting. After a couple of martinis, she warned me about the harassment in Hollywood and the ‘wolves in this town’.
I replied that I was well used to them after several years in the British film industry.
‘All of us had to put up with having our bottoms patted and men leering down our cleavage,’ I told her.
Joan Collins and George Peppard pictured in the film The Executioner, 1970
The film she’d mentioned was my first starring role since arriving in the US aged 20. It suddenly dawned on me that this pale-faced woman was the fabled Marilyn Monroe
‘That’s nothing compared to the studio power bosses, honey,’ Marilyn replied. ‘If they don’t get what they want, they’ll drop your contract.
‘It’s happened to lots of girls. Specially watch out for Zanuck. If he doesn’t get what he wants, he’ll fire you.’
‘Well, thanks for the advice,’ I said. ‘I’ll definitely keep away from him.’ I tried to heed her warning. But at the studio a few days later, Darryl Zanuck himself [producer of such classics as The King and I, The Longest Day, Carousel and The Snows of Kilimanjaro] pounced on me, trapping me against a wall.
Breathing cigar fumes, he hissed: ‘You haven’t had anyone until you’ve had me, honey.
‘I’m the biggest and the best and I can go all night.’
I was so shocked I couldn’t think of anything to say. I managed to wriggle free and ran back to the set.
I’m glad I was speechless, because I heard that a starlet had recently been fired because when he said: ‘Baby, I’m the biggest in the business . . .’ she responded with: ‘You’d better be, ’cause you’re only five foot two!’
It was the stuff of legend that he had a golden replica of his manhood sitting on his desk as a paperweight. But it was true — I saw it once at his office. Ugh!
In the aftermath of the Harvey Weinstein scandal, the full extent of the depravity that pretty young actresses were forced to descend to for potential roles was finally out in the open and no longer continues — or at least is no longer accepted. I hope.
But it went on for far too many decades. I know, because I was there.
My first encounter with the casting couch was while testing for the juvenile lead in the 1952 British movie I Believe in You.
One of the producers had made such obvious advances that I had to dodge him by hiding in a wardrobe in the costume department, helped by sympathetic dressers, and waiting until he left the studio before taking the bus and Tube home. But after my third test he caught me and persuaded me to accept a lift home in his flashy Bentley. During the ride, he grabbed my hand and put it on his open fly.
I screamed in horror and yanked my hand away. ‘What’s the matter? Don’t you want the part?’ he leered.
‘Not this much,’ I cried, childishly bursting into tears as I realised I had blown my chances. I’d never seen a naked man before, let alone felt one.
‘Are you frigid?’ he hissed. It was the first time I had been called that by a man, but sadly not the last. Men who, because they were rich or powerful, thought that women were playthings could be very cruel.
But the recent light that has been shed on the film industry has not just landed on the predatory institutional sexism of Hollywood — it’s also been shed on any business run by ruthless, powerful and misogynistic men in other industries.
Luckily, this producer was overruled by the director and the head of the studio, so I got that role despite his threats. However, he still pursued me, and when I told him I wasn’t interested and was still a virgin he called me a ‘frigid little witch’.
It wasn’t just producers who were predatory. Sadly, many of the actors I worked with considered it their divine right to have sex with their leading lady. At the age of 21 I had repeatedly said no to a handsome, if short, famous actor I was working with.
One night after shooting, he followed my car and when I paused at the Twentieth Century Fox exit gate, he shouted at the top of his lungs: ‘You stupid cow — you’ll be washed up by the time you’re 23!’
Luckily, I was under contract and for a good salary, so I considered myself reasonably safe until I hit 27, which was widely deemed by studio bosses to be the age that women lost their sexual allure.
A couple of years later, when I was doing a press junket in New York, my agent secured me an interview with a very famous producer for a part I really wanted. I dutifully went to his office at 6pm, and when I arrived, his secretary was just leaving.
‘He’s in there.’ She pointed to a back room. ‘He’s waiting for you.’
I entered a bedroom and a voice called, ‘Come on in,’ from another door. I tentatively walked in and there he was, lying in the bath without as much as a bubble to cover his embarrassment, with which he was tinkering.
‘Sit down,’ he commanded, gesturing to the end of the bath.
‘Oh, I’m fine, thank you. I’ll stand.’ ‘Come on in,’ he grinned. ‘The water’s fine.’ ‘Oh, ah, no thanks.’ I tried not to shudder, nor notice what he was doing to himself under the soapy water.
Marilyn warned me about the harassment in Hollywood and the ‘wolves in this town’. I replied that I was well used to them after several years in the British film industry. Pictured: Joan Collins in the 1960s
After a few minutes’ chat about the film, which I argued was totally right for me as the character involved was English, he agreed I would be perfect, and then again insisted I share his bath.
‘I’m sorry, I have to go — I’ve got a date with my boyfriend,’ I stammered, horribly aware that I wouldn’t get this role now.
‘Who’s your boyfriend?’ he asked.
‘Oh, you wouldn’t know him. He’s a young actor — Warren Beatty.’
‘What are you doing wasting your time with unknown actors?’ he said, beginning to sound annoyed. ‘C’mon, let’s go to 21 [a New York club and restaurant] tonight. I’m an important man. We can have some fun. By the way, how old are you?’
‘Twenty-five,’ I muttered.
‘Twenty-five, huh? That’s not young in this business any more, sweetie.’ I stared at his ugly 55-year-old face, turned, and left.
‘You won’t get much further in this business, kid, if you’re going to behave like a high-handed bitch!’, he called after me.
American Kim Novak got the role of the Cockney tart, but her accent left a lot to be desired.
Another role that I coveted around that time was that of the Egyptian queen Cleopatra. Both the head of Fox, Buddy Adler, and the chairman of the board — a Greek gentleman old enough to be my grandfather — had bombarded me with propositions and flowers, culminating in promises to cast me as Cleopatra if only I would be ‘nice’ to them. They both used this euphemism, quite prevalent in Hollywood at the time.
I couldn’t and I wouldn’t — the very thought of these old men touching me was utterly repugnant. So I dodged and I dived and hid around the lot and made excuses while the studio tested me for Cleopatra ad infinitum, with various actors who, to say they were wooden would be unkind to trees.
At one point Mr Adler cornered me to dance with him at a glamorous industry party. He told me I would have ‘the pick of the scripts’ after Cleopatra and that he would set me up in an apartment which he would pay for as long as he could come and visit me three or four times a week.
Having run out of excuses, I blurted out: ‘Mr Adler, I came here with my agent, Jay Kanter. Why don’t we discuss this deal with him?’
‘Honey, you have quite a sense of humour,’ he said.
‘And a sense of humour is all you’ll ever get from me,’ I murmured as I left him on the dance floor.
Elizabeth Taylor got to play the part opposite Richard Burton, another predatory actor I had played opposite in the 1957 war film Sea Wife.
Richard had told me that if I didn’t go to bed with him I would ‘break his record’.
‘What’s that?’ I asked.
‘I’ve slept with all my leading ladies,’ he bragged.
After a few moments Marilyn turned to me and said rather sadly: ‘They wanted me to play the lead in The Girl In The Red Velvet Swing, but I’m too old.’
‘Well, I’m not going to be another notch on your well-punched belt, so I guess I am going to break your record!’ He barely spoke to me for the rest of filming. Likewise, George Peppard. We were making The Executioner together and after attending a party to celebrate the start of filming, he dropped me off at my house in London, then tried to grab me.
When I pushed him away, saying I was married and had two small kids, he accused me of being ‘totally square’.
Not to speak ill of the dead (but I will!), Mr Peppard proved an eager beaver in the amorous department. Wearing nothing but knickers and a sheet during our first love scene, I was at somewhat of a disadvantage as all six foot two of him was splayed on top of me.
The wardrobe lady had swiftly pulled the sheet away at the last minute as he came in for the kill.
I tried a closed-mouth screen kiss, but he wasn’t having any of that and attempted the full-on Frenchie. When I politely extricated his tongue from my throat for the fourth time, I became angry.
I protested to our director, Sam Wanamaker, while Mr Peppard looked on in amusement as the make-up department tried to reconstruct both our lipstick-covered faces.
‘Just do it a little less forcefully, George,’ said Sam persuasively.
‘OK,’ growled the great star, and off we went again.
Action! Sheet off, Peppard on, tongue in — ugh! Sam was finally satisfied and cried: ‘Cut.’
‘Did you enjoy that?’ smirked George.
‘No, I hated it. And you didn’t have to be quite so “methody,” ’ I retorted as I struggled back into my robe to cover my nakedness, trying not to be the day’s cabaret act for the crew.
‘You’re such a prude,’ he sneered. ‘Most actresses love it.’
‘Well, I’m not one of them.’ I stalked off, speechless with fury.
After this, George became so angry and petulant that we communicated only through our respective make-up people and during our scenes.
When George was cast as the lead in a new serial drama called Oil, he was so difficult that the producer Aaron Spelling fired him. They recast with John Forsythe, retitled it Dynasty . . . and the rest is history. I don’t think I could have stood nine years working with George Peppard.
Another memorable but distasteful kiss was on the super-yacht of legendary producer Sam Spiegel, moored in a gorgeous bay outside Cannes. I was with Roger Moore and David Niven and their respective wives, looking forward to a birthday celebration for Sam.
Twenty of us were seated on deck at a long table filled with flowers. Roger made a toast to the birthday boy, then added: ‘And it’s Joanie’s birthday today too!’
‘That’s wonderful! Congratulations, honey,’ beamed Spiegel. ‘And have I got a present for you, little lady.’ He lumbered up to me and plonked a tonsil-probing smacker, complete with snake-like tongue, on my lips.
Roger thought it was hilarious as I sat there gobsmacked with a sickly smile on my face.
The table whooped with glee as I surreptitiously wiped my mouth on my napkin. The following day I came down with a virulent strain of flu and had to spend the next three days in bed.
I work in a profession where hugs, kisses and physical contact is the norm, but call me cold and aloof — and I try not to be — I don’t willingly participate.
How I admire the Japanese culture’s sensible approach in which people just bow and nod their heads when they meet, be it friends, acquaintances, or strangers. Arriving at airports, I arm myself with enough hand sanitiser, nose-blocking gel and baby wipes to stock a corner chemist.
Scared to get the flu even after having had the flu jab, I protect myself from the zillions of invisible germs that lurk on door handles, lift buttons and supermarket trolleys.
In the aftermath of the Harvey Weinstein scandal, the full extent of the depravity that pretty young actresses were forced to descend to for potential roles was finally out in the open and no longer continues — or at least is no longer accepted. I hope
But I believe the deadliest germ carriers are other people’s hands and faces. The bane of my life is the bear hug followed by a sloppy kiss on the cheek from total strangers.
As I was brought up at a time where you didn’t kiss or hug anyone except your close family, and it was the norm to seldom receive much affection from your parents past the age of ten, this overt physical warmth is something I can’t adjust to.
My mother was a germophobe long before it was trendy. When she took me out in the pram, strangers would often coo over me and get far too close for her comfort, so she felt compelled to have a sign printed, which she put on the blanket covering her little darling, stating: ‘Please do not kiss me.’
Unfortunately, I no longer have that sign, as it would still be useful!
It’s interesting that the #MeToo movement and the condescending new HR guidelines that proscribe the traditions of luvvie-land and make it verboten to get too close to your colleagues suit me fine, even if I disagree with the nannying.
Now after the curtain comes down, actors are not supposed to fraternise, presumably with each other and much less with the management and production staff. If those had been the rules in 2000, I would never have been able to date my husband when we met in San Francisco and toured the US.
Percy Gibson was managing the Love Story company and I was playing opposite George Hamilton.
Luckily, George was not one of those actors who spray you with saliva when you have a scene in close proximity. Ever the gent, we worked together several times on television, and he has never parted his lips or done ‘the French’ during a kissing scene.
So, dear reader, if I don’t accept your kisses, hugs and handshakes, it doesn’t mean I don’t like you. It just means I don’t want to catch your germs.
- Behind The Shoulder Pads by Joan Collins (Seven Dials, £22) to be published September 28. © Gibson Girl UK Ltd 2023. To order a copy for £19.80 (offer valid to 02/10/2023; UK P&P free on orders over £25) go to mailshop.co.uk/books or call 020 3176 2937. See Joan Collins live at a city near you from October 1 — JoanCollinsTour.com