I recently returned from several months in Los Angeles working on one of the most popular US TV shows. American Horror Story is a mysteriously scary but fascinating series of interconnecting stories created, produced and written by Hollywood’s latest wunderkind Ryan Murphy. In the past decade, he was the brilliance behind such hits as Nip/Tuck, Glee and my particular favorite, Feud, a fascinating study of the enmity between two great legends of the silver screen, Joan Crawford and Bette Davis. More recently his output has trebled with The Assassination of Gianni Versace, a nine-part series about the tragic events involving the fabled Italian designer, and the mesmerizing trial of O.J. Simpson in The People vs O.J. Simpson. The latter was a massive hit and Mr Murphy’s fame continues to soar — he gets a star on Hollywood Boulevard this month. Ryan is endlessly creative, and he decided that one of my characters in the series should be a film star/witch called Bubbles McGee. I adored the name, and the part, for which I wore a silver white bouffant wig redolent of Jean Harlow. Strangely, silver wigs are hard to come by in Hollywood and they only managed to get one. When it came to the death scenes (actors die a lot in American Horror Story), the fake nails embedded in my skull from a ‘nail bomb’ and the blood splattered all over my face took an hour to apply and three days to get rid of. I kept wondering where the congealed blood was coming from in my bath…
I was excited to be working at 20th Century Fox studios, for this was the third time that I had started a project at this iconic studio. When I was 20, I was signed as a contract player by the notorious Darryl Zanuck (cue the #MeToo chorus). The studio backlot at that time covered acres of prime Los Angeles real estate from Pico Boulevard to Santa Monica Boulevard. It included completely authentic-looking English villages, New York streets, 14th-century castles, western towns and dozens of other locations. I deeply regret I was too young to appreciate the iconic nature of these buildings, so I never really explored them or took photos. There is one batch of photos of me there, which Milton Greene, Marilyn Monroe’s agent, took of me looking sulky and lounging against an Egyptian obelisk while I was screen-testing for the movie Cleopatra. It was that movie which shrunk the prime acreage to what it is today. The production went so over budget that thousands of staff were laid off and Fox had to sell off parcels of land to stay afloat. It was the second time the Queen of the Nile brought down an empire. All the renowned sets were demolished, and dozens of skyscrapers, hotels and shopping malls took their place.
The second time I entered the Fox gates on Pico Boulevard was in 1982 when I started filming a little series called Dynasty. The backlot sets that had been razed were a sad reminder of past tough times, but the New York street on which Barbra Streisand had performed in Funny Girl was still there. In June I was delighted to find, on my third time arriving at Fox, that it was still there — a survivor, like Ms Streisand herself.
A very famous actor known for his extremely liberal views was quoted recently as saying he was fed up of being told by his PR representatives: ‘You can’t say that, it’s politically incorrect.’ May I join the queue of people who side with this sentiment? Watching a popular dance show on TV alongside a young female person (is that OK?), I referred to a woman (can I say that?) who was performing rather badly as ‘the girl in the pink dress’. ‘You can’t say that,’ the teenager squeaked indignantly. ‘It’s sexist and incorrect.’ ‘What should I say?’ I asked. ‘The individual in the pink dress,’ she replied. ‘We can’t assume how she identifies.’
This reminded me of my own potential transgender moment. At 15 I decided I did not like the idea of becoming a woman and started on a ‘tomboy’ stage. I eschewed my mother’s girdles, suspender belts and slips, and adopted my father’s corduroy slacks and loose shirts. I also took to accompanying him to Arsenal games, where I would wave my ratchet furiously. Luckily this all stopped a few months later when I was accepted at Rada and discovered the joy of boys (wait, can I say that?).
At a glamorous Mayfair party, a ‘person of the to-all-outward-appearances female persuasion’ (or ‘woman’ as they used to be called) pushed through the throng to excitedly inform me that she had never missed an episode of Dynasty. ‘I love it,’ she exclaimed. ‘It stood for everything I hated.’ For once, I was struck dumb.
This article was originally published in The Spectator magazine.