When Joan Rivers was 8 years old, she snatched a photograph of herself that sat atop her parents’ piano, sealed it in an envelope and sent it off to MGM in an effort to kick start her Hollywood career.
“In her mind, this little girl was clearly a star and she sent the photo — frame and all,” Melissa Rivers explained from the stage on Wednesday during The Hollywood Reporter’s Women in Entertainment Breakfast. “My grandma was not pleased as it was a $50 frame.”
MGM never responded, but Joan did get a Hollywood career — a long and legendary one at that. The anecdote was one of many touching and insightful sentiments Melissa shared in a nearly seven minute speech inside L.A.’s Milk Studios where Joan’s only child was publicly speaking for the first time following her mother’s tragic death on Sept. 4 in New York City following a routine procedure at Yorkville Endoscopy.
“For me the last three months and six days — not that I’m counting — have been different to say the least,” noted Rivers, dressed in a chic pink Roland Mouret dress. “When Janice [Min, THR president and chief creative officer] asked if I would say a few words today, I was overwhelmed. Not just because it is the first time I’m speaking in tribute to my mother, but because every single person in this room could hire me, and a few have actually fired me. You know who you are but I don’t want you to feel bad … but technically I am now an orphan.”
The Women in Entertainment breakfast, sponsored by Lifetime, Audi, Gucci, Roberto Coin and Loyola Marymount, was held to coincide with the publication of THR’s annual Women in Entertainment: Power 100 list. Wednesday morning’s event was an A-list industry affair. In addition to Melissa’s appearance, Shonda Rhimes received THR’s Sherry Lansing Award following an introduction from First Lady Michelle Obama and actor Tony Goldwyn. Angelina Jolie, who ranks No. 9 on THR’s list, appeared on stage to present scholarships to inner-city girls who participated in THR’s Mentorship Program.
Sarah Silverman took to the stage to pay tribute to Joan in a heartfelt and respectful speech that followed a video tribute featuring comments from Chris Rock and clips from the documentary Joan Rivers: A Piece of Work. During the video tribute, many of the power players in the room were seen wiping away tears, including Joan’s Fashion Police colleague Giuliana Rancic. Silverman then introduced Melissa, who walked to the stage while receiving a standing ovation.
Melissa’s orphan comment illustrated her tendency to lean on her mother’s brand of comedy to help her through what has admittedly been a difficult few months. But there were more than punchlines.
“My mother was fearless and I don’t mean she didn’t have any fears. I mean that although she was only 5’2’’, she stood tall and walked through them. That is what made her such a brilliant performer,” Rivers explained, after noting that “brave” is a word that best describes her mother. “She was willing to say what others were thinking and too frightened to admit. She never apologized for a joke and no topic was taboo and she was fine with that.”
Melissa also mentioned that her mother “never thought of herself as a woman working in a man’s world.” “She just thought of herself as a comic and had to be funnier than everyone else. She just wanted to do her job and that was to make people laugh,” she continued.
Making people laugh is something she did up until the end on the E! show Fashion Police, and Melissa, who serves as an executive producer on the E! show, called it “the funniest, edgiest and most controversial comedy show on television.” Melissa also mentioned how her mother received a posthumous Grammy Award nomination for Best Spoken Word album for her Diary of a Mad Diva. It’s a fitting title considering the stories Melissa told on Wednesday.
“From the time she was a small, small child, she took risks,” Melissa said, adding that Joan was once sent home from Camp Kinnikinnick for organizing a bunk strike because she didn’t like the way the drama counselor had cast Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. “My grandparents were called and told to come get her. They apparently told (them) that they either raised the next Hitler or Eleanor Roosevelt — they weren’t sure which.”
The list of names that have followed Joan’s life even after her death have been long and have included “legend,” “trailblazer” and “bitch,” Melissa explained.
“It’s hard for me to really think of her as any of those things because the bottom line is, she was just my mother,” she said. “I guess it’s true that most of the women who are here — and we all have powerful voices in our respective fields — wouldn’t be here if it weren’t for that brave little girl who sent her photo in.”
And what would Joan be doing if she was still here and invited to Wednesday’s event? “She’d not only be grateful and proud, she’d be beyond herself,” concluded Melissa, who accepted a hug from Jolie following her speech. “She’d be sitting at the table, beaming. While very discreetly shoving croissants and silverware into her purse.”