She shoots me a get-real look. “She’s terrific. She’s very funny and very pretty. But why should I admit it?”
Even at this late stage in her 40-year career, Rivers is nowhere near ready to cede the stage to a younger generation. (As her former manager Billy Sammeth says in the film, “Right now they see her as a plastic-surgery freak who’s past her sell-by date … But God help the next queen of comedy, because this one’s not abdicating. Never will.”) I am reminded of an e-mail she sent me a couple of years ago, when she was at yet another low point in her career. I asked her what she thought of Kathy Griffin. “I am her friend but also furious,” she wrote. “She is the big one now. My club dates have simply vanished and gone to her. She will last as she is very driven. Like me, she wants it. But every time a gay man tells me, ‘Oh, she is just like you! I love her!’ I fucking want to strangle them. But, please God let someone give me credit. I feel so totally forgotten. The fucking New Yorker did this big piece on the genius of Rickles, who is brilliant but who hasn’t changed a line in fifteen years. Meanwhile, I am totally ‘old hat’ and ignored while in reality I could still wipe the floor with both Kathy and Sarah. Anyhow, fuck them all. Age sucks. It’s the final mountain.”
In late January, Rivers made her first trip to the Sundance Film Festival in Park City, Utah, to attend the premiere of A Piece of Work. Directed by Ricki Stern with Annie Sundberg, whose previous two documentaries were about wrongful convictions and Darfur (go figure), the film is essentially a year in the life of Rivers, who comes across as, if not the hardest-working person in show business, then certainly its most unrelenting practitioner. Ricki Stern is the daughter of her friends Marjorie and Michael Stern, a couple Rivers met five years ago “at a stuffy dinner party” in Connecticut, where she has a country home. “Marjorie was the only person who laughed out loud when someone said Demi Moore was talented,” jokes Rivers.
At Sundance, Rivers wears a slight variation of the same all-black outfit every day. Today: Donna Karan sweater, Chanel slacks, Manolo boots, full-length sable fur, huge sunglasses. Among the green and crunchy in their polar fleece and turquoise jewelry, she stands out like a whore in church. She knows she is anathema to this crowd, with her ostentatious plastic surgery, conservative streak, and glitzy lifestyle. Though she calls herself an independent and voted for Obama, she is constitutionally Republican. Friends with Nancy Reagan. Thinks we should just bomb the shit out of Iran. Ambivalent about feminism. Detests whining and victimhood and laziness. Hated Precious. “I got very annoyed,” she says. “I thought, Oh, get a job! Stand up and get a job!”
To Rivers, Sundance is a tribal gathering of the too earnest and the no fun—artistes in hypocritically expensive jeans. At one point, she sits down for an interview with the film critic Peter Travers and he asks her about her first trip to the festival. “Everyone here is an act-or,” she says. “ ‘Hi, I’m Deborah, and I am an act-or.’ Oh, fuck you. You are an actress.” Who’s funny to you? he asks. “At Sundance? I find no one funny.” She cracks up. Are you going to be serious while you’re here? he asks. “When I meet Bob Redford I will be serious,” she says. “If I recognize him after the face-lift.”
She travels around town in a black Escalade bursting with entourage: two assistants, Jocelyn and Graham, hair-and-makeup man Martyn and his boyfriend Digby, as well as Marjorie and Michael Stern. It is a rolling cackle-fest, Rivers slaying the group with metronomic consistency. She is a spoken-word Twitter feed, constantly streaming one-liners: sometimes shocking, sometimes vile, sometimes cruel, always hilarious. Not surprisingly, she is recognized everywhere she goes. As we are heading into a restaurant on Main Street for lunch one day, she is swarmed by a group of very young people with pierced lips and pink hair. Rivers, as a young film-industry guy tells me one night at a party, is considered cool to people too young to know her as anything but the outrageous red-carpet lady. As we head into the restaurant, the strangest-looking chick in the group yells, “I love you, Joan!”
A few weeks before Sundance, I called Rivers to ask about the documentary and I got hit with her don’t-expect-anything-and-you-won’t-be-disappointed voodoo. Asked about Ricki and Annie, she cracked, “They don’t wear makeup.” Do you like the movie? Long pause. “They forgot to show that I actually enjoy my life.”