In David O. Russell’s new drama, Joy, Melissa Rivers makes a rewarding cameo as her late mother, Joan Rivers, behind the scenes of a home-shopping network in the early 90s. At that point, Joan, whose fashion business amassed over $1 billion in QVC sales during her lifetime, was already an established entrepreneur, and her confident character juxtaposes Jennifer Lawrence’s Joy, the Miracle Mop inventor, on her first day shilling her invention on-camera. Even though Melissa’s guest spot is a touching and brave tribute to the iconic comedian, who died unexpectedly last year, Melissa, forever her mother’s daughter, is unyielding when imagining what Joan’s comic feedback might be.
“I think she would be a little miffed that they didn’t have Cate Blanchett playing her,” Melissa deadpans to VF Hollywood during a recent phone call. “I think she would have wanted Cate or Helen Mirren, had it been in the later years, because, of course, when you think of my mother you think of willowy and English.”
Melissa was pitched the role only about four months after Rivers passed at the age of 81. And Melissa, still in the depths of grief, was conflicted on whether or not to put herself in such a surreal, vulnerable situation. But she was also certain that her mother—a huge fan of Lawrence and Russell’s previous collaboration Silver Linings Playbook and a workaholic whose relentless, trailblazing career arc was chronicled in the 2010 documentary Joan Rivers: A Piece of Work—would have disapproved of her passing on the role.
“I could hear my mom’s voice in my head going, ‘You get to work with David O. Russell, Jennifer Lawrence, and Bradley Cooper. . . . What are you doing even questioning this?” Melissa recalls. Another check in her pro column was the fact that Joan had one especially positive memory of Cooper, which, Joan felt, indebted her to the Oscar nominee for life.
“My mother adored Bradley,” Melissa recalled. “First of all, she loved his work and thought he was adorable. Then they were on a flight together once and he behaved like such a gentleman. My mother never forgot he put her bag in the overhead compartment and got it down for her. It was [comedian] Nick Kroll and Bradley and my mom all on the same flight, and my mother became like den mother. She’s like, ‘O.K., we’re all going to chat. Now we’re all going to go to sleep.’ Then she was like, ‘Goodnight, everybody,’ and everybody went to sleep. Then, they walked her out of the terminal and carried her bag. She loved that stuff and she was a fan of Jennifer’s.
“Jennifer walked up to me on set and quoted her favorite Fashion Police line from over the years back to me, which was my mom saying, ‘That dress is so ugly, it looks like it would be good at math.’ What a way to break the ice with me.”
In addition to her co-stars making her immediately feel at ease, Melissa said that Russell welcomed her input on dialogue written for Joan, particularly when she gives Joy sartorial feedback.
“In the scene where they put Joy in a skirt, David said to me, ‘What would your mom say?’ When I told him, he said, ‘Well then, say that.’ That’s the take they used. I kind of knew what she would say,” Melissa says. “I spent a few years working for her.”
Understandably, Melissa felt protective of her mother’s characterization in the film, and took great care to ensure that her jewelry, clothing, and hair was right—combing through archived jewelry at her company to ensure she wore the right pieces for the year. And although she spent a lifetime with her mother, Melissa still needed preparation time to finesse Joan’s singular delivery.
“I wanted to make sure that it didn’t became a caricature or an impersonation,” Melissa says. “I did work very hard on the speech pattern, and the tone, because I didn’t want it to become an impersonation. That’s what I was most frightened of. This was at the beginning of QVC and our [fashion] company is still going. It was such a big part of her life.”
As the film approaches theaters this Christmas, Melissa reveals that she is already overwhelmed by the warm feedback she is receiving for taking a leap of faith so soon after her mother’s passing.
“You know, my mom only died a year ago September,” Melissa explains. “I have basically put my head down, worked, tried to create the new normal for my son and I, and put the train back on track. To have [this film] this year, and with people liking my work, and liking that I did it, and feeling that I did her justice, it is such a bow emotionally for us that I feel like we can take a deep breath and say, ‘We’re getting this. We’re going to be O.K.’”