Audiobook review: “Hollywood Wives” at 40

Audiobook review: “Hollywood Wives” at 40

Hollywood Wives has been given new life with a 40th anniversary reissue, but it was long ago guaranteed immortality. A gilt-edged, leather-bound copy of Jackie Collins’s novel has pride of place on the schadenfreude bookshelf. Anyone seeking assurance that rich and famous people are absolutely miserable and obsessed with petty grievances can take Hollywood Wives into the bubble bath.

It might be awkward to celebrate Hollywood Wives’ milestone birthday just as movie actors and writers are taking to the picket line, but the story of these characters and SAG-AFTRA, if set in the present day, would be just as free from actual moviemaking as the original novel.

Sadie LaSalle would be trying to get Buddy Hudson on TikTok, with Buddy left wondering whether a doppelgänger account was run by his twin or simply a deepfake. Gina Germaine would be pitching a reality series, Ross Conti would be mulling offers from Pornhub, and Montana Gray would be on the picket line trying to answer reporters’ questions about whether it really counts as striking when she’s never had a screenplay actually produced.

While the foibles of Collins’s characters remain recognizable, the world they lived in is long gone. The strike has illuminated the fact that actors are no longer the assumed power players in Hollywood, although even in 1983, Collins made clear that even superstars would try to screw a producer before they got screwed.

Hollywood was near its peak of cultural relevance, but the old studio system was already in the rear view — and, the author seemed to believe, good riddance to it. Ronald Reagan’s name comes up in the novel only as an old pal of a veteran star who has little acting skill and neanderthal attitudes toward women. The book’s moral exemplar is Montana, who wants to direct her own screenplay about important social issues, its title perfectly of the time: Street People.

That screenplay becomes a sort of MacGuffin for Collins’s characters, who see it as a prestige project that could offer real acting opportunities for stars dismissed as mere pretty faces (Gina, Ross) and could launch the careers of unknowns like Buddy. The book’s title doesn’t so much point to its subject — the Hollywood husbands get just as much attention — as to its sympathies. As the book goes on, the men fall more and more deeply into humiliation or worse, while their wives earn our respect.

That’s true even of Karen Lancaster, the aging star’s wealthy daughter whose proudest asset is, Collins writes from Ross’s perspective, her “wonderfully erotic nipples. Oh, those nipples!” It’s just as well the book was made into a television miniseries rather than an R-rated movie, because those nipples — variously described as “tactile,” “extended,” “incredible,” and “awful” — would have been impossible to cast.

The anniversary edition has a new foreword by Colleen Hoover, who salutes Collins for busting the boundaries formerly imposed on women authors. The versatile Hoover is best known for her thrillers, which may benefit from Collins’s precedent but must improve upon that element of Hollywood Wives: a distracting, icky subplot that provides a Grand Guignol climax to a story that might have more aptly have ended in farce.

This could be my bias as a man just shy of Ross’s age (he celebrates his 50th birthday with a star-studded party that leads to deflating revelations), but the graying actor stands as the book’s most fully realized comic character. It may not be coincidental that his screen career has some resemblance to the author’s literary career: a long stream of hits with little pretension to artistic distinction, making him a figure beloved as much for what he represents as for what he achieves.

For Hoover, Collins represented freedom. For millions of readers, she’s represented easy pleasure with a sizzle of glamour. (Actor Joan was her older sister.) Hollywood Wives is firmly feminist, with numerous gay characters who range across the spectrum from heroic to wicked: in retrospect, the book provides a window into Hollywood’s frustration with the Reagans, who curried the favor of homophobes and dragged their feet on AIDS despite having spent decades in the Hollywood community.

Emily Tremaine narrates the anniversary audiobook, and glories in the characters’ histrionic fervor. Her exclamations as Ross are positively cinematic. The book, however, isn’t well-served by a production that fails to sufficiently distinguish between passages as the narrative leaps from one setting to another; even close listeners risk some confusion. A latter-day Ross might be listening in his “frigging Rolls,” punching the rewind button as he tries to figure out the plot of his own story. Jesus H. Christ!

Jay Gabler

Image: Cast of the Hollywood Wives miniseries (ABC, 1985)