Joan Rivers: A force of nature

23:49, Sep 04 2014
joan rivers
Joan Rivers and her daughter Melissa on the red carpet at the 73rd Annual Academy Awards in 2001.
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Rivers with her daughter Melissa and grandson Cooper filming scenes for their TV series Joan and Melissa.
joan rivers
Attending the wedding of Prince Charles and Camilla, the Duchess of Cornwall.
joan rivers
With fans after performing on stage in London.
joan rivers
With her Fashion Police co-star Kelly Osbourne (L) and daughter Melissa at a panel discussion about the show.
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Rivers had been in a coma since was rushed to a New York hospital on August 28, 2014 after she stopped breathing during surgery.
joan rivers
Joan Rivers in full Fashion Police mode at New York Fashion Week in 2012.

Outspoken, opinionated and full of fire, the comedian Joan Rivers will be remembered as that rarest of personalities: a force of nature.

Her excoriating wit was almost without peer, and her catchphrase - "Can we talk?" - forever associated with her diminutive form, typically wielding a fur, hands clutching at the air, spewing one-liners to an audience.

Ultimately, however, she will be remembered for one extraordinary quality: she made us laugh.

Joan Rivers
FASHION POLICE: In her later career Rivers was best known as the lacerating host of Fashion Police.

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Rivers, who was born Joan Alexandra Molinsky, has died, aged 81, after complications arising from a surgical procedure.

Her daughter announced the news in a statement this morning (NZ time).

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Joan Rivers
RAZOR WIT: Joan Rivers will be remembered for one extraordinary quality: she made us laugh.

"It is with great sadness that I announce the death of my mother, Joan Rivers. She passed peacefully at 1.17pm surrounded by family and close friends," Melissa Rivers said.

For those who put stock in signs and patterns, the fact that her death comes so quickly after the loss of another comedian, Robin Williams, and the actress Lauren Bacall, will not escape notice.

Such things, it is said, come in threes.

In her final incarnation, Rivers was a withering fashion commentator, but prior to that, in a career spanning more than five decades, she was a trailblazing female stand-up comedian.

Rivers first punctured the American social consciousness in the mid-1960s as a regular guest on the iconic Tonight Show, hosted by Johnny Carson.

But her early career, like so many, was peppered with flirtations as an actress: playing opposite a very young Barbra Streisand on stage, and on film, in the 1968 film The Swimmer, opposite Burt Lancaster.

But comedy was the young Joan Rivers' forte.

She first appeared on the Tonight Show during the reign of host Jack Paar, and then her early champion Johnny Carson, as well as The Ed Sullivan Show, Allen Funt's infamous Candid Camera, The Carol Burnett Show and Hollywood Squares.

Though Rivers was herself a superstar in America's "late night" realm, a decision to embark on her own talk show - Fox's The Late Show starring Joan Rivers - would cost her dearly, professionally and personally.

Significantly, she lost the mentorship of longtime friend Carson, who had supported her career for more than two decades. When she left his show to host her own, Carson felt personally betrayed. The pair never spoke again.

Rivers later spoke of trying to call him, but each time she called, he would simply hang up on her.

"I tried to contact Johnny to reconcile our friendship, a million times, but he just wasn't having it," she said. "When he passed away, I felt such a crushing blow, that things were still unresolved.

"Johnny was a dear friend, I wish things would've ended different, this just was not worth it."

In the wake of the failed Fox show, Rivers also lost her husband, Edgar Rosenberg.

As the show struggled, Fox asked Rivers to fire Rosenberg, who was working as a producer on the show.

"I couldn't do it," she said later. So Fox fired them both. Three months later Rosenberg took his own life. The lost was a life-changing moment for Rivers and the couple's only daughter, Melissa.

"He left us high and dry, everything just went to smithereens," Rivers said. "And he left me with no career, and a lot of debts, because he wasn't a good businessman, and a lot of tough times."

Rivers later career was peculiarly, and shamelessly, narcissistic.

She became a red carpet reporter and later a fashion commentator, noted for her razor-sharp takedowns of celebrity wardrobes, appeared in the British version of Big Brother, America's Celebrity Apprentice and, in a jab directed at her own plastic surgery, played herself in a series of episodes of the cosmetic surgery drama Nip/Tuck.

She was also unafraid of an argument.

When she sensed an interviewer on the news channel CNN was focusing on negative headlines earlier this year, she terminated the conversation. "You are not the one to interview someone who does humour, sorry," she told journalist Fredricka Whitfield, before walking out.

And when asked about the situation in Gaza by a paparazzo photographer recently, Rivers fired off this missive: "When you declare war, you declare war. They started it. We now don't count who's dead. You're dead. You deserve to be dead. You started it. Don't you dare make me feel sad about that."

Rivers has more than 20 movie credits to her name, including playing a fictional US president in the somewhat forgotten Australian film classic Les Patterson Saves The World. She also featured in a powerful and revealing documentary on her own life, Joan Rivers: A Piece of Work.

In the last decades of her life, however, it was Rivers' partnership with her daughter Melissa for which she was most famous.

"I was dying to be a mother. I couldn't wait to be a mother," she said once. "And I really worked very hard to be there for [Melissa]. I am sure she felt very deserted as a child but I was there as much as I could be and I made sure we were a family unit and she knew it."

The pair co-hosted programmes together, competed in reality TV shows together and, extraordinarily, played themselves in a telemovie dramatisation of the aftermath of her husband's death, Tears and Laughter: The Joan and Melissa Rivers Story.

"It sounds so stupid and corny, but I think by walking through it again it absolutely mended us," Rivers said. "Totally mended the relationship."

Rivers also wrote a dozen books, the most recent of which was Diary of a Mad Diva, published in 2014.

"Welcome to my world, I've been through it all," Rivers once said. "And I often pinch myself to believe my luck. I design jewellery, create cosmetics, perform comedy, act, lecture, write books, travel, have a fabulous daughter, and a phenomenal grandson.

"I feel I'm the luckiest woman on the planet."

Sydney Morning Herald