(An expanded version of this interview appears in the current issue of South Florida Gay News.)
Joan Rivers sat down for an interview anticipating the June 11th release of the documentary film covering the 75th year of her life, Joan Rivers - A Piece of Work.
"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 fluid and dynamic but offstage, her slow shuffle is markedly different and more appropriate for someone who is now 76. "Actually, it's these fucking Stuart Weitzman high heels. They're very tight."
Joan says she still has anxiety 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. Something in the DNA. 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. 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. Half of them end in divorce. What you are really getting is the right to gay divorce."
The film does not shy away from describing her 22 year marriage to Edgar Rosenberg that ended with his suicide. Joan speaks honestly about her husband and about the possibility of future romance.
"There was only one scene in the film that I had them remove and it involved my daughter Melissa and Edgar. Unless you've lived through a suicide, you don't know what it is like. To this day, whenever I walk by his photo, I curse him for what he did. You never get over being angry with someone who leaves you like that. I did meet somebody about three months ago, but that's over."
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 will never stop working, 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.
"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 as 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 76 years of living left her uncertain of her place?
"Look, the whole idea of that 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."
Joan Rivers - A Piece of Work opened in theaters on June 11th.