Joan Rivers teeters into the needlepoint-bedecked library of her Upper East Side apartment wearing a pair of Miu Miu platform shoes with stupendously high heels. The shoes are new and the soles offer no traction, which means there is the possibility that a wrong step could land Rivers at eye level with her three pampered pooches.
Rivers is playing this entrance for laughs. But since her humor is not based on the physical comedy of the pratfall, but rather on the possibility of one, the comedian will almost certainly remain upright. She adeptly milks this moment with a pitched-forward posture, hands that awkwardly clutch at air and the breathless exasperation for which she is famous. She rasps a hello and starts in on the shoes, selected by her only child, Melissa, to incorporate all the notable trends of the season - platform, high heel, round toe - and in which she cannot walk.
If her onstage humor is sharp - some might say mean, and others might argue not even funny - in person Rivers is wry rather than cutting. Her edges have been blunted. In real life she's the doting grandmother of Melissa's 5-year-old son, and she does needlepoint.
Rivers, born Joan Sandra Molinsky to Jewish parents in Brooklyn in 1933, now has a Manhattan apartment like one in the movies, with a manned elevator that opens directly into her foyer. A white-coated manservant bustles about with drinks. A dark-haired woman tends to the dogs. If possessions and personal staff are a measure of success, then Rivers has done quite well.
She's been in show business for nearly 50 years. And in that time, she has been nominated for a Tony Award, won an Emmy for her daytime talk show and been handed her walking papers. She has played Broadway, Las Vegas and out-of-the-way clubs, always employing her signature line - "Can we talk? - and dishing out one-liners on the pomposity of celebrity, the privileges of beauty, the unfairness of life and her personal desperation born out of insecurity. She survived near financial ruin after a disastrous business relationship involving her jewelry company left her $37 million in debt. And most significantly, she rode out the emotional tsunami that followed husband Edgar Rosenberg's suicide in 1987.
But since 1996, when she first began interviewing celebrities on the red carpet for E! Entertainment, Rivers - with Melissa as her sidekick - has been known for dissecting, judging and ridiculing celebrity style. She moved to the TV Guide Channel, and on Sunday she and Melissa conducted their 1,000 red carpet interview at the 58th Primetime Emmy Awards.
Joan Rivers still lassoes the big stars - even though she sometimes can't remember their names - and gets prime real estate on the crowded red carpet. Both such accomplishments do not come without a fight. Rivers doesn't shrink from administering a public scolding - as when a camera crew from the BBC stole her Nicole Kidman interview. Or when a publicist is uncooperative. "There's one little blond press agent who just doesn't like me," she says. "She took two interviews away from me - that ugly little dwarf."
At E!, Rivers would not only interview stars as they were arriving for the major award shows, she would also lead a kaffeeklatsch after the event, during which she, Melissa and various guest designers would conduct a painful - but funny - postmortem of the fashion.
She continues the mix of live reporting and Monday morning quarterbacking at TV Guide, where she and Melissa signed a three-year, $8 million contract.
Rivers took to the red carpet during one of several low points in her career. "My TV show was over. The Broadway show closed the same week. Someone had just absconded with my money," she says. "I'm always one to say, 'Just try it.'"
Snagging red-carpet interviews at that time was considered about as desirable a gig as chasing ambulances.
"My first interview was John Travolta. He was just coming back, too, with Pulp Fiction," Joan recalls. "He literally said, 'What the [expletive] are you doing out here?'"
There is a devil-may-care mood when Rivers is on the air. She is amusing to watch because she may be brilliantly funny or she may fall flat. She will rarely gush. She will only occasionally be inappropriate, for interviewers who behave badly are punished by the celebrity wranglers.
On Emmy night, there was also the tantalizing possibility that Mama Rivers might forget a major actor's name or not bother to hide the fact that she had no idea who any of the people are from Huff or House.
"They have drinking parties and every time I miss a name, you take a drink," she says, chuckling.
"It's impossible, especially with the Emmys," she says. "There's like 130 new shows. And you're supposed to know someone who's third billing on CSI: Hoboken?"
Others have tried to do what Rivers does. Star Jones Reynolds gushed too much. Kathy Griffin was too fast and too droll - the actors couldn't keep up. Isaac Mizrahi groped the starlets. Geena Davis, in 1999, tried to intellectualize the red carpet. "She was putting us down," Rivers says, and here she quietly raises her middle finger and gleefully jabs it into the air for emphasis. "She said, 'I'm not going to ask stupid questions like Joan and Melissa. I'm not going to ask, 'Who are you wearing?'"
And here Rivers wonders what Davis thought was a more appropriate question: How would you negotiate world peace? "People want to know: Are you excited? Are you happy? Is this your mother?"
And, of course, who are you wearing?
Melissa, four days before the Emmys, didn't have a dress. "You'd think people would be sending us gowns hand over fist," she says. "I'm waiting until they've finished with all the A-list people, the nominees. There's nothing more humbling than to interview someone and have them say, 'Oh, I tried that one on.'"
And her mother? She was wearing Bill Blass.
(The Washington Post)
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