On the Set : Joan and Melissa Talk ... and Act Out Their Family Tragedy

Chris Dafoe is the West Coast arts correspondent for The Globe and Mail in Canada

Life meet Art. Art meet Life.

Now ... Can we talk?

In the world of TV movies, where networks hope that yesterday’s headlines will be tomorrow’s ratings bonanzas, Life and Art (or something like it) are hardly strangers. But the two have seldom been so intimately acquainted as on the set of NBC’s “Tears and Laughter: The Joan and Melissa Rivers Story.” In this case, Life and Art not only met, they had coffee, talked about shopping, exchanged notes on their respective therapists and went out dancing after dark.

The movie is based on a 1993 People magazine cover story that chronicled the Riverses’ struggles to deal with the suicide of Edgar Rosenberg, Joan’s husband and Melissa’s father, as well as Melissa’s relationship with an abusive, cocaine-addicted boyfriend. Written by Susan Rice, it stars--who else?--Joan and Melissa as Joan and Melissa, with Mark Kiely as Porter, the pseudonym chosen for Melissa’s charming but dangerous beau. The issue of People with the Riverses on the cover was one of the best selling of the year; the producers had pitched the movie almost as soon as it hit the stands.

“Even without the celebrity element,” says executive producer Merrill Karpf, “the story was a natural. If somebody had brought me a story about what happens to a family when the father commits suicide--about a family breaking apart and coming back together--well, it would have been a fabulous story,” says Karpf. “The celebrity element just makes it more salable. And more accessible, because people know Joan.”

But the Joan who stands waiting to shoot the next scene is hardly the Joan we know, the brassy, acerbic Joan. Huddled under a large blanket, clutching a hot-water bottle to ward off the brisk weather, she looks fragile and vulnerable. Just off the set, Spike, her tiny Yorkie, shivers in sympathy.

A more familiar Joan emerges when the camera rolls. Teetering up to the front of the old Victorian house--it’s supposed to be Melissa’s college dorm--she chides God for the giant cosmic joke he seems to be playing on her by depositing her daughter in this rat hole. This is the Joan we know.

But then, as the next scene unfolds, a less familiar Joan emerges once again. She’s leaning out the window of her limo, waving goodby to Melissa, and the look of trouble and pain that crosses her face suggests she hasn’t had to dig too deeply for the emotion the scene requires.

Life and Art continue their curious waltz a little later, as mother and daughter hold court in the makeup trailer. To the right, a hairdresser touches up Joan’s blond helmet of hair. To the left, a makeup artist applies a large, ugly bruise to the side of Melissa’s face in preparation for a scene in which Porter grinds her face into a mirror.

“When they approached us about doing this,” says Joan, “we said we’d do it on the condition that we got approval on everything: the script, the director, the whole thing. And they gave us that. And when the script came in, it was very sensitive and very fair.

“This story is bigger than just us. It’s a story about conflict in a family and survival. There are no heroes or villains with suicide, just different ways of grieving. I’m very verbal. I rant and rave and talk it out. Melissa keeps everything to herself.”

“I don’t think people know how widespread suicide is,” says Melissa. “Someone from the American Suicide Foundation gave me a list of people with suicide in their families. Some of the names on the list blew my mind.”

Given the trauma that followed Rosenberg’s death, you might think that Joan would be uncomfortable revisiting those times, especially since she would be playing herself.

“Not at all,” she Joan. “For me, the closure came when my book (“Still Talking”) was published. And you can’t think of it as playing yourself. You can’t worry, ‘Gee, did I get that Joan Rivers look?’ ”

Melissa, the bruise on her face growing larger and uglier by the minute, disagrees.

“At first, I didn’t want to do it. I had the normal trepidation about playing myself. But after talking about it with my mother and my friends, I decided to do it. And I haven’t looked back since. I thought it was going to be so difficult and I’m surprised how much fun it’s been.”

“I haven’t had this much fun with Melissa since her science project in the fifth grade,” Joan pipes up.

So much fun, in fact, that they’re mulling over working together again. Melissa suggests a sitcom.

“Sure, how about Missy and Mom and the Menendez kids,” says Joan, taking a jab at her competition on the May sweeps. “It would make a great sitcom. The Menendez brothers get out of jail and since they have nowhere to go...”

Joan and Melissa both laugh loudly. Life and Art obviously have their work cut out for them.

Tears and Laughter: The Joan and Melissa Rivers Story airs Sunday at 9 p.m. on NBC.