Film Review: Joan Rivers A Piece of Work
I did not expect to enjoy this documentary chronicling a year in the life of 75-year-old comedienne Joan Rivers. But I did.
I did expect to be disturbed by certain aspects of her life. And I was. But the disturbing parts had nothing to do with her many, many plastic surgeries.
I learned a lot about Joan Rivers that I didn't know. I corrected misconceptions I'd held based on years of slanted media coverage. I laughed at some of her jokes, and cringed at others.
In the end, I'm still sorting through the layers of revelation, trying to determine how I feel about her. And the truth is, it's not that simple. She's not that simple. Not hardly.
Evolution of a Legend
Joan Rivers: Workaholic
The overriding theme of the film is Joan's tenacity and stick-to-it-iveness. Starting as a comedy writer, she was "discovered" as a stand-up by Johnny Carson in the 1960s.
Not only is she still going full bore at 75, she has no intention of letting up. In fact, her goal is to surpass Don Rickles (still working in his late 80s) and George Burns (who worked until his late 90s).
What drives her? She is deathly afraid of white space in her calendar. If she's not booked from sun-up through 5am she considers it a bad day. There are many, many scenes of her arriving in a podunk town to do two shows, then catching a plane at 4 am to go to the next town (or home to New York).
Available on QVC
Joan Rivers: Elegant Lady
When Joan is in her element -- her luxurious Manhattan apartment -- she is like a modern-day Marie Antionette. Except she is kind to and very fond of her staff. The apartment itself looks like a palace. Joan never, ever looks like anything but a queen.
There are many scenes of Joan getting her hair and makeup done. Even in these she is always dressed beautifully. I didn't count, but I don't think I saw her in the same outfit twice. Always elegant, tasteful and refined. Oh, and the JEWELRY! My movie partner knew this (I did not): Joan hawks her jewelry on QVC.
Why do I bring this up? I guess because I am so used to seeing Joan Rivers stereotyped as the Botox-gone-wrong queen. Sure, if you look really close at her nose, chin, etc. you will see the evidence. But overall, Joan Rivers looks like a class-A grand dame from head to toe, start to finish.
Joan Rivers: Ground-breaking Comedienne
Again, because my recent exposure to Joan Rivers has been confined to her Red Carpet commentary, I had forgotten how ground-breaking her humor was (and still is).
Joan has been finding humor in indelicate subjects like abortion, vagina farts, anal sex and tampons since the 1960s. That's the unexpected thing. Here's this tiny little woman, dressed to the nines in sequins and fur, her hair coiffed perfectly, bejewelled like a queen. Yet when she opens her mouth, it's not just a potty, but an entire sewer's worth of filth. I mean, it takes a lot to make Johnny Carson blush, but you can tell she had that ability!
I didn't keep score, but would guess I laughed out loud at 70% of her jokes and covered my mouth in shock the rest of the time.
Joan Rivers: Tough But Tender
The film did an excellent job of balancing, never reducing Joan Rivers to any one "label." She truly is resiliant. She has suffered unbearable personal tragedy. Yet she has not crumbled under it. She has not even been hardened by it. She does not see herself as a victim. She sees herself as the consummate survivor.
When it comes to her daughter Melissa, also an actress, she is the quintessential Mama Bear. There is also a touching scene in which Joan and her grandson head off on Thanksgiving morning to deliver food to shut-ins (an annual ritual for Joan). Joan's raw affection for the boy -- and his for her -- is heart-wrenching.
Joan Rivers: Conflicted Vulnerability
During the film Joan engages in three distinct types of work.
1. COMMERCIAL GIGS. To keep her schedule filled (and her lifestyle financed) she will take ANYTHING. She will schill Extenze or denture cream. She will write and sign books. No offer is too small or too demeaning.
2. STAND-UP COMEDY.She basically lives for stand-up comedy. And again, no gig is too small or too remote.We see her play in Wisconsin,The Betty Ford Clinic in Palm Springs, a club in The Bronx.
When she is invited to participate in a tribute to George Carlin at the Kennedy Center in Washington, DC, we see Joan's insecurity at work. As the list of co-presenters is read, she verbalizes her opinion of each. For example, "Gary Shandling: Brilliant." "Jon Stewart: Smart." "Lily Tomlin: Brilliant." "Ben Stiller: Lucky." It's as if she is mentally sizing up her "competition" (which she clearly considers them). After her presentation she sums up her own performance thus, "I was funnier than some, not as funny as others. At least I didn't embarrass myself."
3. ACTING. Joan writes a play (featuring herself) and assembles a director and cast to perform it. Her plan is to preview the play in Edinburgh. If it does well there (it does) she will take it to London. If it does well enough there she will consider bringing it to New York. But the spectre of bad reviews decades before hangs over her head.
In London her show is lauded by audiences but not the critics. Her pride cannot take any more rejection. She decides to close the show in London and move on to other projects.
What I found most interesting about the play situation is the importance Joan places on it. She is devestated by the fact that she will never be taken seriously as an ACTOR.
When I heard her say that I thought, "Well, duh. You are a comedienne. That is your identity and has been for 50+ years. If you'd wanted to be taken seriously as an actress, perhaps you should have taken a different direction in your career..."
Official Joan Rivers Website
Joan Rivers: Summary
I considered writing a sidebar to this Hub with some "Did you know?" fun facts about Joan Rivers.Then I thought better of it. If I reveal too many tidbits, you'll have no reason to go and experience this film yourself!
In summary, let me say that you don't have to be a fan of documentaries, or of Joan Rivers, to enjoy this film. It's visually rich, with a ton of juxtopositions (for example, Joan in sequins walking through a shabby hallway to go on stage). It presents a 360 degree view of its subject, without forcing any one interpretation on the viewer.
Days later, I'm still thinking about what I saw and heard. I have a newfound respect, but also a smidgeon of pity, for this prolific funny lady.
I encourage you to see "Joan Rivers: A Piece of Work" and add your comments to mine.