YOU ARE HERE: LAT HomeCollections


She's a sharp one

Joan Rivers' own life is her whetstone.

February 27, 2004|Dana Kennedy | Special to The Times

New York — Even though she began doing stand-up in Greenwich Village clubs 45 years ago, Joan Rivers says she is such a wreck before she goes onstage for her weekly set at Fez that she won't allow anyone in the dressing room with her.

"I will still be so nervous, so ... nasty, everything will upset me," says Rivers, 70. "And after I go on, if it's a bad night, I'll start to stutter. Nothing changes."

Nothing changes? Please. Can we talk? In fact, we are talking, in a book-lined study next to a roaring fire in Rivers' palatial duplex overlooking Central Park, an apartment she boasts was once owned by J.P. Morgan's daughter. A white-jacketed butler named Kevin serves tea sandwiches from a silver salver. It is two weeks before the Oscars, where the Joan Rivers most people know will take to the red carpet for the eighth year with her daughter, Melissa, 36, and skewer some of the biggest stars.

But later this night, the Joan Rivers most people are too young to remember will appear at Fez, a club just blocks away from the nightspots Duplex and the Bitter End, where she spent more than six years as a struggling young comic, often eclipsed by a group that included Lenny Bruce, Bill Cosby, Rodney Dangerfield and Lily Tomlin.

She did not get her big break on the "Tonight" show until 1965.

Rivers has returned to the Village clubs throughout her career to try out new material. Tonight, wearing a Carolina Herrera sequined jacket and black Galliano pants, she does a 50-minute set touching on everyone from "that whiner Princess Diana" to the "greedy" widows of 9/11 before a mostly young, gay male crowd, with a smattering of Upper East Side women. Fashion designer Donatella Versace is just one of her targets. "Doesn't she look like something you'd find hanging on a wall in Africa?"

Rivers gets big laughs and frequent applause during her set, about half of which is improvised.

But she admits some things have changed since she first played the clubs.

"I'm queen of the walk down here now," she says after the show, huddled in the cramped dressing room. "It's fun to get that love. But then you still get the audiences that hate you. And you just plow through anyway."

On Sunday, she will assume her battle station on the red carpet, where, thanks to her two-hour pre-Oscar show on E! Entertainment Television, Rivers has become, if not loved, then grudgingly accepted by some of the Hollywood elite -- an obligatory rite of passage for the career-minded celeb. While E!'s brand of coverage -- specifically the shows "Celebrities Uncensored" and "It's Good to Be" -- has ruffled some in Hollywood, Rivers actually seems to enjoy a certain cachet.

"She's become this hip, cool icon," says publicist Bumble Ward, who represents Sofia Coppola, among others. "It's become a badge of honor to go up to talk to her." Says Stan Rosenfield, who counts Robert De Niro and George Clooney among his clients: "She can be a little caustic, but on balance she's fun and she's popular. My clients like her."

She's clashed with celebrities including Elizabeth Taylor, Rosie O'Donnell and Kelsey Grammer, who was upset over remarks she made about his wife. (Grammer and Rivers have since made up.) Her most famous feud, of course, was with her onetime mentor Johnny Carson, who reportedly stopped speaking to her after she left his show to host her own late-night show on Fox.

Rivers bristles at the stars who snub her.

"Diane Keaton said no to me at the Golden Globes after I'd written a chapter for her stupid clown book for free," she says. "Maybe she was worried about the eczema on her hands. I don't know." Despite such cutting remarks, she doesn't see herself as truly mean.

"I don't regret anything I've ever said," says Rivers. "I don't think I've ever said something to hurt someone. I also never go after someone who's not terribly famous."

It's a safe bet, however, that most of the actresses she interrogates don't know how much she yearns to trade places with them. Her website features a large cartoon of her holding an Oscar and the words, "I'd like to thank the academy ... and I will when they nominate me." It turns out Rivers has always wanted to be an actress, in the Stockard Channing mold. But the woman who makes her living sticking a microphone in celebrities' faces says she lacked the confidence to pursue serious acting. "Comedy was garbage," she says. "In those days a girl didn't want to be a comedian. A comedian was the lowest."

Los Angeles Times Articles