While Joan Rivers is now enjoying a comeback, a new film chronicles a low point in her life. Melissa Whitworth visits the comedienne in New York.
A butler in a starched white jacket opens the door of the palatial apartment in Upper East Side, New York, that is home to Joan Rivers. Supposedly the site of a former ballroom, the main room is decorated in fin de siècle finery, with swathes of pink silk murals and acres of gilt furniture. Two small dogs start yapping. This is, Rivers says, the way Marie Antoinette would have decorated her apartment “if she’d had the money”.
In shuffles the self-anointed queen of comedy – 47 years in the business and counting – and ushers me into a ramshackle, but still grand, library with an open fire. “It’s been a long day,” she says. “If you wee, I will kill ya,” she adds, addressing one of the dogs – a rescued, incontinent Pekinese who, on closer inspection, is wearing some kind of canine nappy. A pillow on the sofa is embroidered with the words “I need a man to spoil me, or I don’t need a man at all”.
Joan Rivers, has been described as one of the smartest, funniest and nastiest people on television. She has, she estimates, over the years offended almost everyone in the business with her prodigious swearing and shocking, outré humour: abortions, anal sex, mental illness, disability, 9/11 and the “C” word all fall within her considerable frame of reference. Jack Lemmon once walked out of one of her stand-up shows, declaring, “this is disgusting”. Her humour has been politely called the product of “female angst” but when she gets on stage, she says, she feels rage for every woman on the planet – and it’s that rage that fuels her comedy.
She has offended almost everyone in the business with her shocking, outré humour
Two years ago, she allowed film-makers Ricki Stern and Anne Sundberg – the duo behind earlier acclaimed documentaries The Devil Came on Horseback, about genocide in Darfur, and The Trials of Darryl Hunt, about a man who spent 20 years in prison for a murder he didn’t commit – to capture a particularly low period in her life, when work had almost entirely dried up. The film, called A Piece of Work and premiering at the Sheffield Documentary Festival on Wednesday, opens with uncomfortably close shots of Rivers’s surgery-enhanced face without any make-up.
Her long-time manager says to camera: “Right now they see her as a plastic-surgery freak who is past her sell-by date, who is finished. But God help the next queen of comedy, because this one’s not abdicating. She never will. There will be claw marks in that red carpet before she abdicates.”
Of her infamous obsession with plastic surgery, she says she couldn’t stand the hypocrisy of everyone in the entertainment industry doing it and then decrying it. “So I became a big advocate for it. Then I became the poster girl. Then I became ‘The Joker’.”
In person, everything about Rivers – including the effects of those facelifts – is softer and gentler. She is, of course, funny: tomorrow night she will be announcing her engagement to one of the rescued Chilean miners on television, she says. But there is little sign of the screaming banshee who yelled abuse at A-listers on the red carpet, where for eight years she hosted the Oscar arrivals. She still contributes to the E! Entertainment channel’s Fashion Police show, relishing the sartorial missteps of the stars.
“The performers I know who are wonderful keep it for the stage,” she says. “You don’t need to make an entrance because the lady on stage is your big, mouthy friend who is going to speak for every woman. “When I am on E! for the Fashion Police I only care about being a critic. It loses me many friends. I have to say: ‘Nicole Kidman, you are in a red dress with a white face.
You look like a ketchup bottle.’ So she won’t talk to me at the next party I see her at, but that’s my job.”
At 77, Rivers has lost none of her power to shock. “You call it shocking,” she says. “I call it the truth and I just think you have to face the truth. Just say it and get it out of the way, and stop sugar coating it.”
However what A Piece of Work really reveals about its subject is that beneath that offensively ballsy stage persona lies a crippling sense of insecurity about finding herself out of work and deemed irrelevant. We are given a glimpse inside her diary, page after page of empty white space.
But there are larger human truths in the film that go past entertainment-industry neuroses; growing old, the need to be loved, the fraught mother-daughter relationship. At one point, she is asked by a radio talk-show host: “Don’t you want to be loved for yourself?” and Rivers replies: “You just want to be loved, who cares why?”
At another, she tells a booking agent over the phone: “I am a comedy icon. I don’t need, at this age, to walk into a room and have it be half full.” Later, she openly weeps, saying: “My career is as an actress. I am an actress playing a comedienne. It’s over, it’s over... No one will ever take me seriously as an actress.”
This from the woman who has won an Emmy, been nominated for a Tony, written 10 books, appeared in nine films and more than 60 television series, made countless celebrity appearances and sold $750 million worth of jewellery on the TV shopping channel, QVC. Rivers cut her teeth with New York’s theatrical elite. It was at a dinner party with Arthur Miller, Elia Kazan and Lee Strasberg that Marilyn Monroe turned to Rivers – then 17 and in her first year at university – and said: “Men, they are all the same. They are just stupid and they like big boobs.” Rivers wrote the line down in her diary and it became the title of one of her books.
From there, she “endured humiliation and deprivation” for almost 10 years “playing tawdry clubs, borscht-belt hotels, and Greenwich Village cabarets” before appearing, in 1968, on The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson, the show that turned Carson into a figurehead for American comedy and which ran for 30 years.
“When Johnny Carson said, ‘You are going to be a star’, my life changed that moment,” says Rivers, snapping her fingers. “Doors opened. Then you have to work like hell to keep them open. But they opened.”
That period propelled her into the living rooms of America, and saw her performing her stand-up routine while seven months pregnant with her daughter, Melissa. “That was unheard of,” she says. “Every reviewer said I should not be on stage. In those days it was very shocking.” She spent 18 years with Carson, but when she decided to leave to start her own show, it caused a rift with her mentor who never spoke to her again.
In 1986, she and her husband, British television producer Edgar Rosenberg started work on The Late Show Starring Joan Rivers which helped launch the Fox Network. Immediately there were tensions between the owners, Rupert Murdoch and Barry Diller, and Rosenberg. Rivers then had a call from Murdoch saying: “The tail doesn’t wag the dog.” Rosenberg was fired, Rivers decided to go with him, and her show was cancelled. Her husband committed suicide three weeks later.
“As comedians, we are all laughing because life is so horrible,” she says. “Life is so difficult and I cope with it by making jokes about absolutely everything. I just wrote today on Twitter: ‘Hitler: like him or not, he was a great dancer.’ Some people ask, how can you make a joke about that, or 9/11? I would have made jokes in concentration camps. You have two choices: laugh or die.”
This is the way Rivers has dealt with every tragedy life has thrown her way. “When my mother died – and we were beyond close – I remember sitting in the beauty salon the day of the funeral, and she always said to me: ‘Look good in front of the relatives when I die.’ I said to the guy doing my hair: ‘If you don’t make my hair look good you will be doing my mother’s by this afternoon.’ That’s how I get past everything, and I think it’s a wonderful mechanism to have.”
Since the documentary, Rivers’s career has taken another upward swing, and for the first time in years she’s turning down parts. Starting in January in the US, there is a new reality show, Joan & Melissa: Joan Knows Best?, in which she appears alongside her daughter. And she is writing a Broadway play with a friend. “I will work as hard as I do because I love it,” she says. “It’s my drug. It feeds me. If you love what you’re doing why in God’s name would you give it up?”