Editor's note: Joan Rivers, 81, died Thursday. Below is a story SFGN conducted with her 4 years ago. In her memory we wanted to re-feature it.
Joan Rivers sat down for an exclusive SFGN interview anticipating the June 11th release of the documentary film covering the 75th year of her life, Joan Rivers - A Piece of Work.
Her appetite for work, her boundless energy and her slim and fit appearance suggest some secret vitamin or nutrition regimen. She denies this. “I’m a bad eater. It’s all DNA.”
Clearly, the juggernaut that is Joan Rivers is not looking forward to rest and relaxation.
“I can’t imagine not working. I don’t know what I would do if I had to retire. Even if I had to go to prison, in five minutes I’d be organizing The Prison Follies and I’d be saying hey you in cell 5, can you tap? Get over here.”
The film is an intimate portrait of a powerful and driven woman who lives to perform. Her movements onstage are jumpy and dynamic but offstage, her slower shuffle is markedly different and more appropriate for someone who turned 77 on June 8th.
“Actually, it’s these fucking Stuart Weitzman high heels. They’re very tight.”
The significantly revised face of Joan Rivers, is animated and luminous in person, a startling contrast to the immobilized mask delivered by television. Her eyes are engaging and energetic, and she is genuinely curious about anyone near her. In unguarded conversation, she becomes a study in contrasts. Fearless, insecure, successful, doomed, powerful, shunned, gracious, uncensored, wounded, lovable, and finally, a woman alone and surviving.
“In truth, it’s a 50/50 split between career and family, about what is more important. If I had to choose between the two, of course I would choose Melissa, but Mel says my career is my other child. It’s like she has a sibling.”
Joan is instantly funny and always the first to send up her own foibles, including the perpetual anxiety she harbors about her appearance.
“Someone once told me to stop worrying about my thighs on the beach because everyone else is worried about their thighs, so why bother. No one ever told me I was ugly. I still don’t know why I felt that way but a few weeks ago I was watching a video from many years ago when I was on the Mike Douglas show and I remember feeling gigantic and very fat next to some thin woman in a pants suit. That feeling never goes away.”
Although she does not know why she is insecure about her appearance, Joan does know where she got her strong work ethic and her comedic skills.
“My mother was funny, my sister, my whole family. It’s just the way we are. I got my work ethic from my father. He worked nights as a subway driver to put himself through medical school.”
In A Piece of Work, we meet the offstage Joan Rivers whose free time is spent working to secure her next booking. She allows a film crew to track her for 14 months. The 84 minute result is crafted from over 200 hours of intimate and fascinating filming that reveal a Joan Rivers sure to surprise those who know only her more cynical red carpet persona. In one particularly candid scene, Joan places her hand on a stack of yearly ring-bound date planners. Opening one of them to a page full of commitments, scheduled interviews and appearances, she says “This is what a good year looks like.” She opens her current volume and shows us page after page of blank white. “You see this? This is hell.” Today, the pages of her planner are no longer the dreaded pure white. “Things are going great. But next year, who knows.”
Joan is appreciative of her huge gay fan base.
“I appeal to gay people because in me they get a strong woman who makes her own way. I have some very close gay friends. Ellen, Rosie, Lily. I’ve never been sexually attracted to a woman. I never went through that stage where I was in love with my camp counselor.”
About Don’t Ask Don’t Tell and gay marriage rights, she is brief.
“Don’t Ask Don’t Tell is just plain stupid. It should be stopped. And gay marriage? You want it? Go ahead and have it, but I don’t know why you want it. Almost half of them are going to fail. What you are really getting is the right to gay divorce.”
The film does not shy away from her 22 year marriage to Edgar Rosenberg that ended with his suicide. Joan speaks honestly about her husband and about letting a film crew into her private life.
“I gave them carte blanche. There was only one scene in the film that I had them remove and it involved Edgar. Melissa asked that it be taken out. There was a scene where I walk by Edgar’s photograph, and I say ‘Fuck you’ for what he did. Unless you’ve lived through a suicide, you don’t know what it’s like. You never get over being angry with someone who leaves you like that. They were very nice about taking it out.”
Her favorite scene in the film is one in which she is chatting with her young grandson who is the most important man in her life. While A Piece of Work emphasizes the fact that she is totally absorbed by her work, it also depicts a woman with close friends and family. Joan divides her time between homes in Connecticut and Manhattan but she spends much time in Florida visiting friends who have moved there for tax reasons. She says she loves both Florida and Manhattan, relishing their differences. In Connecticut she loves to have friends to dinner.
At home or at work, Joan Rivers is a woman who prefers the driver’s seat. Directing a movie would seem a logical next career move, but she explains why that is not in her plans.
“I directed a beautiful little movie in 1978 called Rabbit Test. Great cast. I loved doing it, but the critics hated it. Tore it to shreds. I vowed I would never direct another movie and I won’t.”
Despite her setbacks, she says she has absolutely no regrets about anything she has done. She does regret not doing some things such as sleeping with Robert Mitchum and Robert Ryan when she had the chance.
Will she always be alone? Is there a straight man alive today who is strong enough to love and live with a woman as forceful and iconic as Joan Rivers? She laughed at this question and admitted that there had been a man in her life a few months ago.
Her voice indicates no desperation or bitterness about where her life has brought her. Even though Johnny Carson eventually cut her out of his life because she dared to launch a competitive late night talk show, she chooses to remember the better times.
“Carson was the best straight man in the business. So appreciative. When he leaned back in his chair and laughed, that was your paycheck.”
“Look, nobody is 100% happy. I’m 93% happy which means that I am very lucky. I think anyone who gets to even 60% should be glad. You know what a good day is for me? I get a call from Melissa and she’s doing fine. I get a call from my grandson and he’s happy. I get a call from my accountant and he tells me I’m OK. That’s a good day.”
In another particularly moving scene in A Piece of Work, Joan is leafing through the script of a possible pilot. She becomes frustrated whenever she does not find any lines assigned to her. As she turns each page, she repeats “I’m not finding myself here.” Finally she throws down the script saying “I’m not finding myself anywhere.” Have 77 years of living left her uncertain of her place?
“Look, the whole idea of this movie is my reinventing myself. Did I do it? No. I’m the same person, but now I own it. I never used to admit my age. Now I do. You asked me about death. I’ll tell you how I want to go. On stage in the middle of a set. I just want to fall off the stool in the middle of a one-hour routine. I have written instructions that I am not to be resuscitated unless I am capable of doing 60 minutes of stand up. Oh wait. I should fall off the stool after 31 minutes because they don’t pay you unless you do at least 30 minutes.”