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Interview

Joan Rivers Can't Get Off the Elevator

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Joan Rivers Can't Get Off the Elevator
Joan Rivers has been a lot of things. She's been a star of late-night TV. She's been a menace to celebrities on the red carpet. She's been whatever word you call people who appear on reality television shows. But Rivers got her break in show business as a comedian, and it's as a comic that she still works most, touring the country nonstop and playing weekly shows at Manhattan clubs that very polite folks would describe as "intimate." So it's surprising when, in the new documentary "Joan Rivers: A Piece of Work," she says she thinks of herself as an actor first—and that when she's on stage in front of a microphone, she's simply acting like a standup.

"When I'm doing standup, it's who I would love to be," Rivers says at the end of a long day of interviews at Manhattan's Regency Hotel. ("She's been in heels all day," a young press rep says with awe as she throws herself onto a couch and slips on a pair of flats.) Rivers is here to shill for the movie made about her by documentarians Ricki Stern and Anne Sundberg, which follows a year in the performer's life and career. Roger Ebert called the film "one of the most truthful documentaries about show business I've seen," and it's garnered so much buzz that Rivers now seems poised to be this season's Betty White, a forgotten master of her craft rediscovered late in the game.

"Wouldn't you love to be able to say to people, 'That's ridiculous and you are so fucking wrong?' " she says, getting back to her stage persona. "It's all the things we don't do in polite society. So of course it's not really me."

That Rivers believes the real her to be an actor is revealed in one of the film's most compelling storylines, which involves her self-aborted attempt to produce and star in a play about her life and bring it to Broadway. Riding a wave of good reviews and audience love from the Edinburgh International Festival, Rivers is stopped in her tracks by mixed reviews in London. She refuses to run the risk of a similar reception in New York and kills the project, recalling over and over again the trauma of her 1972 Broadway debut, "Fun City," which closed after just more than one week.

"I don't need at this age to come into New York and pick up The New York Times and read, 'I've never liked Joan Rivers,' " she says. But the swooning over "A Piece of Work" since its February premiere at the Sundance Film Festival has emboldened Rivers. "I may bring it in anyhow. I may sneak it in Off-Off-Broadway at a Chinese laundry somewhere. You know, let them find it."

That, however, doesn't mean the funny lady—who is used to being in the crosshairs—has gotten over her fear of critics with regard to her acting. Rivers is notorious for projecting a tough, even aggressive persona, but in person, as in the film, she comes off as surprisingly sensitive, especially when it comes to the craft.

"That's truly what I love," she says. "That's my heart and that's the thing that is the most vulnerable that I have. As I keep saying over and over and over again, I don't want my elevator man to say to me, 'I'm so sorry, Ms. Rivers.' Because you can't get off the elevator."

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