March 1, 2010
No Star is Safe: Rivers riffs on red carpet attire
Joan Rivers loved, loved, loved Quentin Tarantino’s “Inglourious Basterds.” But not his shlumpy attire at the recent Golden Globe Awards ceremony. “He was wearing this long, black frock coat — he looked like a preacher,” she said in her famous raspy voice over the phone recently. “Of course, his work is so amazing, in a way you don’t want him to be a dandy. But you do wish a good woman would get a hold of him and just dress him like a normal person.”
These are polite words for Rivers, the iconic comedian infamous for skewering celebrity fashion with her hilariously vitriolic shtick. The red-carpet diva will again dish on the stars, with her daughter, Melissa, when her day-after-the-Oscars show, “Fashion Police: The 2010 Academy Awards” airs on E! Entertainment Television on March 8. It’s a “postmortem” event, because Rivers is through with working the actual red carpet. “It’s gotten so boring,” she said. “You can’t ask anybody a real question, because their PR lady will then not let you have the next four people that they own.”
However, her job remains essentially the same. “I’m like ‘The Emperor’s New Clothes,’” she explained. “I’m the one who says ‘This dress is ugly,’ when everyone else is saying, ‘But it’s Christian Dior.’ Yeah, but it’s ugly Christian Dior.” Her “Fashion Police” motto: Who looks fine, and who should be fined.
Back in 1996, Rivers virtually invented the red-carpet fashion interview when her daughter suggested they take the job with E! “Everyone said it was beneath me,” Rivers recalled. But she was broke, a widow since her husband, Edgar Rosenberg, committed suicide, and she was struggling in one of the lowest points of her career. In 1986, Rivers was perhaps the most successful female comic of her generation when a feud with Johnny Carson, for whom she had been a favorite fill-in host, drastically reduced her opportunities in show business. Not one to stay down, she reinvented herself as a QVC shopping channel personality hawking her own jewelry, and after the suicide, when she suddenly found herself $37 million in debt from a business setback, she wisely calculated that the E! gig would at least get her back on TV.
“My first interview was with John Travolta, who was himself making a comeback [after 1994’s] ‘Pulp Fiction,’” Rivers recalled. “He looked at me in shock and said, ‘What the f—- are you doing here?’ But I was happy for the work. I love to live very well, and I was taking anything. I still take anything. If I have $1, I spend $1.05.”
Rivers attributes her love of luxury in part to her Jewish mother, who fled the Russian Revolution because “her family was rich — ‘court Jews’ who sold fur and bricks to the czarist army. My mother was only 6 years old when she left, but she remembered servants carrying in big silver platters with pears stuffed with caviar for dinner.”
Working the awards-show circuit for E!, and later the TV Guide channel, helped pay for Rivers’ palatial, gilded Manhattan apartment — but the gig is much harder than it looks, she admitted. “It’s like going into an exam,” she said. “You try to know everything about Nicole Kidman [for example], what she was nominated for, what she wore, how many marriages there were. The research is like studying for the SATs.”
Sometimes Rivers blundered — like when she confused the actors Hugh Jackman and Hugh Laurie or neglected to recognize Gabriel Byrne as Ellen Barkin’s date. “You say to Catherine Zeta-Jones, ‘So it’s your first nomination,’ and she says, ‘It’s not,’ and you just wanna kill yourself,” she said.
Yet Rivers quickly became an awards-show icon, helping to transform the relationship of stars to fashion with her famous question, “Who are you wearing?”
Woe to the celebrity who kvetches that the red carpet is tedious. “You think this is drudgery work? Oh puhleese — go back to being a waitress,” she said. “It’s ‘Russell Crowe time’ — when the man ‘does you a favor’ by giving you an interview. Or Diane Keaton. It’s like ‘You don’t have that great a body of work, you should be grateful for the opportunity.’”
Would Rivers ever interview Mel Gibson, whom she deems “an anti-Semitic piece of s—-?” “God, no,” she said. Would she comment on his clothing? “Constantly,” she said. “I’ll always say he came dressed wrong because his SS uniform is at the cleaners.”
A crucial Rivers fashion police rule is to separate her feelings about a performer’s work from her critique of their couture. Of course she loves Meryl Streep, an Oscar nominee for “Julie & Julia,” but that doesn’t stop her from lacerating the actress’ recent red carpet appearance in a busy print gown. “She looked like a sofa,” Rivers said. “She’s not a stylish woman, so get somebody classic like Ralph Lauren to do something for her.”
The conversation turned to Carey Mulligan, another best-actress nominee, who portrayed the schoolgirl who has an affair with a charming Jewish con man in “An Education.” “I thought she was adorable; perfect casting,” Rivers said. But the dress Mulligan wore to the Golden Globes was awful, in her opinion. “I called it ‘The History of Fashion,’” Rivers said. “It had sparkles, it was one-shoulder, it was ruffles, it was pleated, my God, everything you could figure out was on that dress.”
The fashionista herself has a stylist. “You cannot criticize if you look like a pig,” she explained. And she’s simply too busy to shop for her own Oscar outfit. In addition to all her E! awards-season coverage, Rivers has been performing her stand-up act around the country; her other endeavors include preparing for the second season of her TV Land show, “How’d You Get So Rich,” which premieres May 5, and promoting “Joan Rivers: A Piece of Work,” a documentary about her life that was a hit at the 2010 Sundance Film Festival and will hit theaters in June. In between, Rivers makes time for the Botox and other plastic surgery she so outspokenly advocates and that is one of her trademarks — along with her catty patter.
But she will tread lightly when discussing an actor’s nips and tucks on “Fashion Police.” On a previous show, she said one actress’ best accessory was her new nose. “The lawyer from E! came running down the hall yelling, ‘Don’t say that — she’s very litigious.’”
So why do viewers love watching Rivers make stars squirm? “It’s like ‘They may have everything, but they’re not perfect — ha-ha!’” she said. “It levels things out.”