Super close up on Joan Rivers’ face. Her makeup artist is applying foundation. But before it is all the way applied you get a very personal look at a 75 year old woman’s face. Veins and age spots galore, but oddly enough, no wrinkles. It’s not for the faint of heart, but it’s the truth, and I love it.
I didn’t mean for this film review to be uncharacteristically serious—a stark contrast to everything else I’ve ever written here—but that’s just what happens when I truly care for and am passionate about something. Joan Rivers has paved is paving the way for women in comedy for so long, and she had been such a force in my life that I can’t help but love her and this documentary. In the film she explains how much it pisses her off when people talk about her in the past tense. Don’t ever tell her she opened doors for women: “Go fuck yourselves. I’m still opening doors.”
Okay, well, the documentary Joan Rivers: A Piece of Work really isn’t as earth-shattering as I would have liked, but it’s good. It’s definitely worth watching, maybe even a couple of times.
The film starts out showing us around Rivers’ life. She’s a workaholic, and to her, an empty calendar book means “nobody wants me anymore,” a recurring theme in the life of a septuagenarian who is trying to figure out if she can stay relevant in a world full of Dane Cook’s and Kathy Griffin’s. (As a reference point, this documentary was filmed in 2008.)
Joan’s forte into television began in the 1960s where she was a writer and did stand up for innumerable shows for nearly 20 years. In the 1980s Johnny Carson served as a mentor, and she became the permanent guest host in 1983. In 1986, though, Rivers was offered her own late night talk show opposite Carson, which ruined their relationship completely. The two never spoke again, and Carson died in 2005.
Her true passion, she says, is actually acting, and the film then follows her to Edinburgh and London where she is doing a workshop of a play based on her life. It is fairly well received, but she is too afraid of rejection in America to bring it to New York.
Then her big break comes. Her moment to shine on Prime Time Big 3 again! Celebrity Apprentice. Both her and her daughter are contestants, but Melissa gets fired early on, and Joan goes on to win the whole thing. This section of the film made me so uncomfortable, because it caused me so much cognitive dissonance. I love Joan Rivers, but I hate low-brow reality TV. I completely understand and support her desire to get more face time, especially on the network that essentially blacklisted her after her rejection by Johnny Carson, but she dedicated so much energy and emotion to a show so unimportant. But that’s life, I guess.
Thanksgiving rolls around, and she continues her tradition of delivering meals to people who are too ill to get out, and her grandson accompanies her. He seems awfully preoccupied with his Nintendo DS, but at least he is getting some exposure to being charitable. She is truly moved by the people she meets, one in particular, Flo Fox. She is a photographer who is legally blind and confined to a wheel chair with multiple sclerosis. Once home, Joan goes to her website and watches clips of a 1980 interview between Fox and Tom Snyder. Nearly moved to tears, Rivers rightfully declares, “Life can be so… mean.” But I think it is moments like that which remind Rivers why she does comedy. There is too much cruelty and not enough laughter. Cut to a stand up show she is doing out in the middle of nowhere, an audience member begins heckling her about how her jokes about deaf people aren’t funny. “Oh, fuck you! My mother was deaf. Comedy is to make everybody laugh at everything and deal with things.”
The film finishes with Rivers emotionally explaining why she had to fire her chronically unreliable manager Billy Sammeth. It would seem like it should a simple business decision, but he had been with her for more than 30 years. He was there when her husband committed suicide. He was there when Carson cut her out of his life. He was there during her peak, and he was there during her slump. The problem is, he isn’t here now. He is more of a sentimental reminder of what she used to have than an active manager in the present. “He’s my last link to say, ‘Remember when…’”
I apologize for this review being sort of all over the place. The film was definitely more of a chronicling of a year in her life, rather than focusing on a theme or two. Throughout, Rivers’ calendar book certainly seemed to have plenty of days filled. She has the consistency of E!’s Fashion Police and her QVC jewelry line. She’s obviously not letting anyone forget about her, so I think her fears of becoming obsolete are a figment of her imagination.
Oh, and by the way, she’s damn funny.