Joan Collins is an actress whose very name conjures up images of glamour, flamboyance, and camp. She is still best remembered for playing Alexis Carrington on the 1980s prime time soap "Dynasty." I was never a fan of that series and was put-off by Collins's gaudy appearance and performance on that show. It just wasn't my cup of tea. However, through the years, I have found that I appreciate Collins's extensive work as a film actress in the 1950s, 1960s, and 1970s. She actually had a long and interesting career before she hit the stratosphere of celebrity with "Dynasty." As a contract player with 20th Century-Fox in the 1950s, she had a classy, earthy quality in most of her roles there that belied the larger-than-life image she'd later project. After she had taken time off to start a family, she did some interesting work as an episodic TV guest actress on shows like "Star Trek," "Batman," "The Man from U.N.C.L.E." and "Mission: Impossible." She was also an enjoyable presence in horror/suspense films in the 1970s--"Empire of the Ants" (1977) remains a guilty pleasure of mine. In short, I have always admired the longevity and survival of Collins's career. But she probably gave her best performance in the little-seen British science-fiction romantic fantasy "Quest for Love" (1971).
Tom Bell plays a physicist who, after a botched scientific experiment, finds himself in an alternate reality where WWII and the Vietnam War never occurred, John F. Kennedy never became President of the United States, and Man never conquered space. In this alternate reality, he is a philandering playwright, and not the ethical scientist that he knows himself to be. Bell's character meets the beautiful wife married to his counterpart in this alternate reality, the vulnerable and sensitive Otillie (played by Collins) and immediately falls in love with her. Collins's character, however, is wary of Bell's explanations that he has come from an alternate world and believes that he is merely playing tricks to try and hurt her again. Bell's character eventually convinces Collins he is telling the truth, and the two fall in love. However, Collins is dying from a heart condition that the cure for has not been discovered in this alternate reality (but which exists in the proper reality Bell came from). When Collins tragically dies in Bell's arms from her ailment, she urges him to find her alternate self in the reality he originated from. When Bell returns to his own alternate reality, he races against time to find Collins's counterpart (who is an airline flight attendant unaware of her heart ailment) before he loses her again permanently.
I know the plot description I just gave you sounds confusing, but once you watch the movie it is very easy to follow. What helps is the fact that director Ralph Thomas and screenwriter Terence Feely focus less on the fantasy elements of the story and more on convincingly developing the relationship and genuine love between Tom Bell and Joan Collins's characters. Bell projects a sympathetic "everyman" quality that is easy to identify with. He is a scientist, but one that is able to balance emotion with logic in order to be a fully developed human being. It is ironic how Tom Bell's character in the other alternate reality, the playwright, has built a career less on logic and data, and more on emotion and drama, and yet (from what we hear of his insensitivity and cruelty from Collins and other characters) has no kindness, sensitivity or understanding of human needs and feelings compared to the Bell character who is a scientist, and yet has tremendous caring and compassion. It's also interesting how the screenplay implies that, without WWII having occurred, great strides in the development of science and medicine would not have taken place, and that Bell's character would have become a self-indulgent, selfish artistic philistine, rather than a man of science both advanced emotionally and intellectually. The movie implies that science and logic go hand in hand with emotion and feeling to create and maintain romance and love. (Got all that?)
But what makes "Quest for Love" truly special is the radiant performance by a superb Joan Collins, who has simply never been better. She is low-key and subtle throughout the film, her usually shrill and hard-edged delivery is replaced by a soft, almost whispery voice that reflects Otillie's sadness and vulnerability. Collins has been likeable and earthy in many roles throughout her career, but rarely has she ever been called upon to be this sweet and sympathetic. Her greatest triumph is that Collins never becomes boring or saccharine playing such a kind character--she makes Otillie interesting without any over-the-top gestures. Collins looks absolutely beautiful throughout the film, clothed in tastefully glamorous gowns designed by the esteemed British costume designer Emma Porteous that have not dated in 40 years and would still look fashionable today. It's hard to believe that this is the same actress who wore appallingly repulsive, over-designed Nolan Miller gowns week-after-week on "Dynasty." When Collins urges Bell to find her in the alternate reality, the scene has tremendous emotional impact. In a subtle example of "less is more," Collins effectively conveys the happiness, mixed with sadness, of her character just as she dies at the moment she has finally found love and happiness in her life. Other actresses, even Collins later on during her "Dynasty" years, might have played that death scene with overwrought emotion, but here she hits a home run by perceptively playing the scene low-key. She lets her beautiful eyes and vulnerable voice do the work here. Despite having a long and interesting career, Collins rarely had a role as good as this one. It is a shame that "Quest for Love" has not become more widely known through the years. Despite it's fantasy/science-fiction elements, it's one of the most intelligently romantic movies I've seen in recent memory. It should have had a higher-profile release so that Joan Collins could have been considered for the kinds of accolades and awards a performance of this caliber richly warrants. A film of this quality simply deserves better.