American Horror Story and Joan Collins are made for each other

The award-winning TV series has done much for underused older actors, but of them all, Collins could turn her newly announced role into a career highlight

Everyone should be pleased that Joan Collins has secured a role on the new series of American Horror Story. Joan Collins herself should be pleased, because a spot on an internationally successful TV series will be much more rewarding than, say, a cameo in Absolutely Fabulous: The Movie. Joan Collins fans should be similarly pleased, because this is a wonderful opportunity to witness more of her haughty, disdainful press interviews. Most of all, though, older female actors should be absolutely thrilled by this news.

Because American Horror Story is picking up a reputation as a safe haven for actors of a certain age. Just look what it did for Jessica Lange. Prior to American Horror Story she was going through all the same motions as countless other fading starlets before her, pinging between bit-parts and TV movies as Hollywood’s voracious gaze passed her by in favour of younger models.

But although on paper it’s a schlocky genre piece, American Horror Story handed her the role of a lifetime. And then another one. And then another one. She played an eccentric neighbour; a vicious nun who runs an asylum; a witch and the all-singing, all-dancing leader of a freak show. It was the showcase that had always eluded her, and she sank her teeth into it for everything she was worth. In Asylum, she got to perform powerful, emotive monologues. In Coven, she got to play glamorous. And in Freak Show, well, there aren’t a lot of shows that require you to belt out David Bowie songs in broad German accents to a two-headed woman.

Jay Duplass, Judith Light, Amy Landecker and Jeffrey Tambor in Transparent
Indian summer: Jay Duplass, Judith Light, Amy Landecker and Jeffrey Tambor in Transparent Photograph: Amazon/Everett/Rex Shutterstock

It paid off. Lange won Emmys and Critics’ Choice awards and Dorian awards and SAG awards for her various American Horror Story roles, and this appears to have ushered in a new wave of plum roles for semi-forgotten female actors. The programme has since used Kathy Bates and Angela Bassett to similar effect. Ryan Murphy brought back Lange to play Joan Crawford in Feud, along with Susan Sarandon, who hadn’t visibly had that much fun in 25 years. Fargo and Legion have made better use of Jean Smart than anyone else in years, and Judith Light has long been the best thing about Transparent. Meanwhile, Netflix’s Grace and Frankie has become the sort of vehicle that Jane Fonda and Lily Tomlin have deserved forever, and their near-constant presence on best actress shortlists should come as no surprise.

It finally feels as if TV is discovering the worth of older actors. A decade ago, or maybe even less, the best these women could expect to be offered was minuscule, underwritten parts as mothers and grandmothers; nothingy Modern Family cameos, such as the ones Shelley Long has to endure, or terrible B-movie stints like Kelly McGillis’ part in Supergator. Now, though, slowly but surely, they’re receiving roles they actually deserve. Big, real, knotty, distinguished roles that understand how to get the best out of them. Finally, they’re getting their dues.

American Horror Story isn’t stupid. It will have thoroughly sized up Joan Collins before offering her a role, and you can bet that her character will make the very best of her strengths as an actor. It’s been years since Collins has played anything other than a cartoonish parody of herself, so there’s a very good chance that this will be her meatiest, best-received role in decades. If she has the discipline to knuckle down and do the work, this could be a career highlight for her. But this is still Joan Collins we’re talking about, so if she wants to sack it off and just intimidate the bejesus out of interviewers for the rest of her life instead, you wouldn’t put it past her.


Stuart Heritage

The GuardianTramp

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