Dame Joan Collins has gone public with allegations that she lost roles because she refused sexual advances by powerful studio heads and Hollywood executives.
In two separate interviews, one in the UK’s “Daily Mail” on October 14, 2017 and the other on the “This Morning” television show on ITV on October 16, 2017, she referred, among many other figures, to the iconic head of 20th Century Fox, Spyros P. Skouras, claiming that her rebuffing of their sexual advances cost her the lead role in the 1963 production of “Cleopatra”.
Leading Skouras scholar Dr. Ilias Chrissochoidis of Stanford University questions Collins’ allegation.
Internal 20th Century-Fox correspondence shows that she was a front-runner for the Cleopatra role only as long as the production remained at B-movie level (under $1 million budget).
Although she was Buddy Adlers’ favorite choice– at least up to February 1959, other actresses were being considered for the role, including Joanne Woodward, Elizabeth Taylor, Brigitte Bardot, Marilyn Monroe, Jennifer Jones, Kim Novak, Audrey Hepburn, Sophia Loren, Gina Lollobrigida, and Susan Hayward.
Collins was certainly right to refuse to become Adler’s mistress, says Chrissochoidis. As successor to the studio’s head (and alpha male par excellence) Darryl F. Zanuck, Buddy Adler never assumed the latter’s level of authority. Besides, he was ill with cancer and would die the following year.
It is questionable if he could deliver on his promise to make her Cleopatra, claims Chrissochoidis.
As for Skouras, he was operating from New York and was visiting the studio only when needed. The thought the he “bombarded” Collins with propositions is exaggerated at the very least, according to the Stanford researcher who has spent countless hours poring over archives and documents belonging to Skouras that are held at Stanford.
Despite her rebuffing the sexual advances of her bosses, Collins could not expect to lose her job. As contract-actress, she was an asset to the company and was expected to be employed in projects to justify her salary.
Indeed, on May 29, 1959, she appears next to Skouras in a video commemorating the expansion of the 20th Century-Fox back lot (today’s Century City).
While it is possible that Collins’s refusal cost her preferential treatment in future casting choices, she certainly did not “lose” the Cleopatra role to Liz Taylor, insists Chrissochoidis.
During the spring and summer of 1959, the scope of the movie expanded. The production was upgraded to blockbuster status with a budget of about $5 million and expected revenue of 15-20 million dollars. Casting the ideal Cleopatra now shifted between the bold idea of a worldwide search for an unknown actress and hiring a big star to carry the movie on her shoulders.
Both Audrey Hepburn and Elizabeth Taylor wanted the role, but the former had contractual obligations with Paramount and the latter was demanding “one million dollars against ten percent of gross.” Gina Lollobrigida then became the front-runner but she, too, presented excessive financial demands.
In early October 1959, Skouras was ready to announce Susan Hayward as the studio’s choice for Cleopatra, when Adler’s negotiations with Taylor finally produced results. On October 14, Adler cabled to Skouras “We have concluded an arrangement with Elizabeth Taylor to do “Cleopatra” […] She agreed to accept $750,000 against 10 percent of the gross.” Skouras immediately replied: “Dear Buddy: The Executive Committee and everyone here in New York appreciative of your wonderful patience and perseverance in handling the difficult negotiations with Elizabeth Taylor, her agents and her court.”
The following day Taylor signed the coveted contract and the rest is history.
Collins’s narrative of “me or Liz” is thus miles away from reality.
What underlies Collins’s allegation about Cleopatra, Chrissochoidis continues, is the long-standing resentment of actors of her generation against the Hollywood studio system.
They consider themselves as milking cows trapped in a talent exploitation farm. It is more likely that they had problems reconciling their self-image as artists with the reality of working in a commercial industry. For example, they tend to attribute the fame and money of Hollywood stardom to artistic talent or sex appeal, while ignoring the well-oiled publicity machine that can turn a Norma Jeane Mortenson into Marilyn Monroe.
Chrissochoidis closes his response to Collins’ allegations with a provocative statement: placing sexual harassment in the context of the “battle of sexes” may serve political agendas but it can also leave intact the core of the issue. Sexual harassment in high-power environments, such as Hollywood, is more likely than not a form of soliciting a bribery, the procurement of sexual services in exchange for preferential treatment.
Whether it results in career stagnation, retaliatory action, enforced short-term relationship or a marriage of convenience is, sadly, a matter of one’s degree of complacency. Hollywood has always been a highly competitive business environment. A cost-benefit analysis of sexual bribery is more likely to address the problem than any wave of moral outcry.
The tortuous “Cleopatra” production, as revealed by internal 20th Century-Fox documents, is described in Ilias Chrissochoidis (ed.), “The Cleopatra Files: Selected Documents from the Spyros P. Skouras Archive” (2013)
Chrissochoidis has also published Spyros Skouras Memoirs, which includes research and fascinating materials from the Greek immigrant who rose to become one of the most important businessmen in America.
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