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Joan Rivers: In her natural element

If your life's an open book, what else is there to say? For Joan Rivers there's plenty more to talk about.

June 12, 2010|By Amy Kaufman, Los Angeles Times

On Tuesday, Joan Rivers turned 77, an age that makes her shudder. After all, for years, the comedian has put a lot of money and effort into trying to look younger.

At an interview at a West Hollywood hotel this week, for example, her face had been coated with foundation so thick it was difficult to see her pores; her fingernails had been impeccably painted with a pink rose gloss and her blond hair had been styled to feather out slightly. Her style of dress, which included layered necklaces from her QVC jewelery line, was in touch with the latest fashion trends.

But a new documentary about her life and career, "Joan Rivers: A Piece of Work," opens with a very different picture of the comedian. Her skin bare, Rivers allows a camera to zoom in on the face that has been famously lifted and sculpted over the years as she meticulously makes herself up with a variety of cosmetics.

It's a side of Rivers that the film's directors, Ricki Stern and Annie Sundberg, were always hoping to unveil.

"I said to Joan, 'If we do this, we really have to have full access,"' said Stern, who, along with co-director Sundberg, has previously worked on documentaries about genocide in Darfur and wrongful imprisonment. "'We have to be there at 6 in the morning when you're rolling out of bed on Saturday.' And she said, 'I've spent my whole life in front of the cameras. I know how this works.'"

Clutching a glass of iced coffee, Rivers said she didn't mind the somewhat invasive process.

"It was an easy extension of what I do," she said, shrugging.

Baring her most intimate feelings has just always been the comedian's way, said her daughter, Melissa Rivers.

"My mom believes in being an open book because she's gone through so much in her life, and people have drawn inspiration from that — whether it be . . . breaking through glass ceilings to dealing with suicide and aging," Melissa said. "For her, talking about what's going on with her life in the moment has never been a scary thing."

The Rivers who emerges in the documentary is less the snarky, judgmental personality viewers have seen critiquing fashion on the red carpet in recent years and more an endearing hostess offering comfort food and fabulous stories of her life amid the Marie Antoinette-styled trappings of her New York apartment.

In addition to being funny, she's whip-smart: the film, for example, reveals the surprising fact that she worked with cultural anthropologist Margaret Mead during her undergrad years at Barnard College. Nor does it overlook the hardships she's faced, such as her past financial difficulties and the 1987 suicide of husband Edgar Rosenberg following the crushing cancellation of a talk show she did for Fox.

"You just move on, or you're just at a loss," said Rivers, discussing her resilience. "And things do get better, I swear to you … things do turn around. I remember after Edgar's suicide when things finally turned around. I was walking down Madison Avenue in New York after the suicide and the firing from Fox and all the bankruptcy crap, and I was laughing with a friend and I thought, 'I'm happy! I'm happy again.'"

But for Rivers, true happiness has always been elusive. She says her best moments occur on stage, but she offers up caveats.

"So much gets taken away from you in this business that I can never fully savor the moment, because it always gets snatched back. I like my Emmy, because they couldn't return it. My Tony nomination — couldn't take it back."

"I'm a pessimist. I'm already looking at a year from now saying, 'Doesn't look so busy,'" she said. "Plus, I also have the age thing now, which is very much hanging over me. There's a limit. Obviously, there's gonna be a point where I go, 'Uh oh, can't do that anymore.' And that terrifies me."

She paused, opening a tiny container of Altoids and popping one into her mouth. She will only drink and eat nothing but mints in the afternoon, she said.

"At night, I'm really not hungry. I'm starved in the morning and at noon, and then by 3:30, I don't care if I never eat again," she explained. "So I'll sit with good friends and have wine and a couple of Altoids and push around a salad. And when there are businesspeople or women that get very upset when you do that, you have to pretend to eat. And that's when you gain weight."

Perhaps surprisingly, her looks and controversial plastic surgery are not a major focus in the documentary.

"When I went into doing this film I thought, 'God, if I can just crack why she got all the plastic surgery.' That was the fascination I had," said co-director Stern. "But she's so matter of fact about it that it's almost boring. The answer is, 'I feel I look better with the surgery. I feel I look good at 77. If it makes you feel good, do it.'"

As for her thoughts on the film, Rivers says she's just glad it's being positively reviewed. She's "too close" to it make a fair judgment call. But Stern admits she doesn't feel that her subject "particularly likes the movie."

"And I can understand why," said the filmmaker. "She doesn't like that we didn't put in more happy times. But it's just that I see the toll this kind of life has had on her, and she doesn't like that, because she's about, 'let's find the humor in it all.' But it is a tough life, and it is bittersweet — someone who is an aging performer in a career that values youth."

On her recent birthday, even those closest to Rivers understood they were not to make a big fuss over her age.

"So I got lots of, 'These are non-birthday flowers,'" she said. "It was darling. One friend sent me a beautiful cake with the wrong name on it and said, 'See, it's not for you.' Anyone over 25 saying 'It's my birthday, I didn't get presents' should shut up. Come on! I think you should only celebrate your birthday when you're a kid."

amy.kaufman@latimes.com

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