Joan Rivers: A Piece of Work (review)

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Howling on the Inside

I am not a fan of Joan Rivers. I find her vulgar and cheap — and I don’t mean that I mind her use of course language (I don’t) but that I dislike the obviousness and petty cruelty of her comedy. I don’t find it any more humorous or appealing for a woman to publicly degrade her husband, for instance, than I do when it’s a male standup comic publicly degrading his wife.

That said, Joan Rivers: A Piece of Work, a documentary look at a year in the life of the 75-year-old comedienne, is a sad, startling exploration of the vagaries of fame, the insecurities of celebrity, and the realities behind the typical “but it’s just a joke” excuses that prop up cheap, vulgar humor. The filmmaking team of Ricki Stern and Anne Sundberg (The Trials of Darryl Hunt) powerfully humanize a woman who has become a walking cartoon, between her dated schtick, which hasn’t changed one iota in years and seems stuck in a 1960s protofeminist rage, and her seeming addiction to plastic surgery. And they begin by opening on a bold image: an unflattering closeup of Rivers’ unmade-up face, which we then watch get slathered in the layers of goopy cosmetics that transform her into that walking cartoon. This is her daily ritual, it seems — I doubt Rivers is joking when she says that the first thing she does is get into makeup so she doesn’t have to see what she really looks like — and it becomes a metaphor for the public persona she presents to the world, the one that hides the private woman.

“I’m furious about everything,” Rivers tells us, which isn’t all that surprising — are any comics actually happy? aren’t they all driven by rage? But to see the desperation with which she functions from day to day is fairly astonishing. As the film opens, Rivers is faced with something that terrifies her: a blank appointment calendar. In good times, it’s chock-a-block with gigs, appearances, travel, photo shoots, and other demands on her time indicating that she remains wanted by audiences. Now, it’s so blinding white that she kids that she needs sunglasses. And yet, it’s not like she’s hard up for money: “This is how Marie Antoinette would have lived if she had money” is the excellent description we’re offered of her palatial Manhattan apartment. It’s not that she’s greedy — she’s very generous, in fact, sending the children of her employees to private schools, for instance — and though she explains that it’s that she just really likes her creature comforts, it’s clear to see that the money isn’t so much about the money but about the public approval it represents.

Rivers’ despair gets increasingly pathetic as we see her struggle through attempts to claw her way back into the public spotlight: she can’t bear to hear the middling reviews she gets when she opens a new one-woman show in London; they’re not even bad reviews, but she expects raves. And her idea of what will constitute her being “back” is truly sad, both for her personally and for what it says about our fame-addled culture, in which being famous merely for being famous is enough: If she wins on the “reality” TV show Celebrity Apprentice, if she gets Donald Trump’s seal of approval, she’ll take that as a sign that she still has It.

It’s a complex portrait, this intriguing film, making honest notes about how groundbreaking Rivers was in the early 60s — merely in being a female comic and by broaching subjects that no one was “supposed” to talk about: abortion, disliking motherhood — but also in how her attempts to stay relevant today are misery-making for her and probably doomed to failure as the entertainment culture has moved beyond her. I don’t like Rivers’ oeuvre any more after seeing this film, but I do have more respect for her as a person, and as someone who has made her own way in the world despite more obstacles than we ever might have imagined from the outside looking in.

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