Just before her death last month Joan Rivers was making headlines and enemies for her outspoken defence of Israel and refusal to toe the predictable showbiz line on the conflict in Gaza. In this, as with many other issues, not least what she saw as the uselessness of feminism, she was proving herself the real provocateur, the brave debunker of Hollywood bien pensant posturing. In an era when comedians proclaim their challenging “edginess” yet parrot liberal establishment orthodoxies, she was the genuine article.
More than what she said, it was perhaps her rasping, abrasive style which turned many people off. Straight men especially — perhaps thinking it vulgar in a woman — seemed to remain stony-faced, while she had a loyal band of women and gays who followed her through thick and thin (and some times were very, very thin, as when she was sacked by a network, leading to the suicide of her husband/manager). Perhaps it was her unsentimental — and realistic — assessment of the mating game, her unvarnished hatred of the dignities of old age and relentless puncturing of celebrity vanities (she recently labelled Michelle Obama a “tranny”), which made the more pious uncomfortable.
Behind this however, there was a woman of culture, intelligence and considerable grace. Her family were Russian Jews, jewellers to the Tsarist court, who fled the country during the revolution. Indeed her Manhattan apartment had an imperial quality, exquisitely decorated with huge art books dotted around. I met and worked with her a number of times over 20 years, interviewing her first for satellite TV on the set of her talk show in New York. Alone in the city, I received that night an invitation to a party she was hosting for the show. Ten years later, we followed her for what seemed like weeks from Los Angeles to London and back to New York for a South Bank Show profile. Being old school in her attitude to “the business”, she was always on time, always courteous and always generous with what we could film. No tantrums or demands, or access grudgingly given, as is so often the case, especially with the vogueish, hip and contemporary (Philip Seymour Hoffman was the rudest interviewee I ever endured). She knew it was a symbiotic game, and she played her part faultlessly.
Joan Rivers also gave the lie to the Christopher Hitchens argument that women are just not funny. Along with Bette Midler, Lucille Ball and Ellen DeGeneres, she managed to provoke laughter simply by her manner. Is it just a coincidence that they’re all American?