Comic confronts showbiz highs and lows in candid ‘Joan Rivers’ doc
It’s like watching them build the Pyramids, or Stonehenge. The construction of Joan Rivers’ face is a little flash-documentary unto itself, a fascinating vignette that leads off the candid backstage documentary feature, Joan Rivers: A Piece Of Work. An army of staffpersons wielding an army of tools—brushes, tubes, paint, pencils, eyelash applicators—daub, pat, draw and shape the familiar mask that is Rivers’ surgically tautened face into being. It’s all done in extreme close-up—an eyebrow, a lip, an eyelash—until the whole is complete. And of course, there is no “before” image. Not surprising for a woman whose very first stop out of bed every morning is the make-up chair, before she can catch an unwary glimpse of what lies beneath the mask.
But if the face behind the make-up remains a mystery, a great deal of the complicated woman beneath the icon is revealed in this cinema verité doc from co-filmmakers Ricki Stern and Annie Sundberg. Joining the household at Rivers’ swanky, New York City apartment (“This is the apartment Marie Antoinette would’ve had if she had money,” cracks Rivers), the filmmakers document an eventful year in the life of the comedy legend. (She celebrates her 75th birthday early in the film.) They follow her to bookings large and small, from a grimy Village comedy nightspot to a 4,000-seat arena; from the London stage to Lincoln Center to gigs in Wisconsin and Minnesota. Through it all, as in Rivers’ scathingly funny, unprintable onstage routines, no holds are barred in discussing her life, herself, and the voracious, demanding entity she calls “the career.”
At an age when most people have retired, Rivers is a driven woman. “Fear,” she says, is a page of empty squares in an appointment book. “One booking a day is not enough,” agrees her manager, and she’s not about to slow down. “There’ll be nail marks on the red carpet before she abdicates,” he predicts. As the film begins, Rivers’ career is at a low ebb as she struggles to reinvent herself and get back on top. She jokes that if she’d saved her money wisely when younger she wouldn’t have to keep schlepping aroun. She claims she’ll do anything for money, but her “addiction” to performing is what keeps her going. It’s “fury” that fuels her comedy, she says, and she still has plenty to be angry about.
A rare woman in a field almost entirely dominated by men back in the early ’60s when she started out, Rivers’ biting, aggressive comedy style (and subject matter like sex and abortion) was pretty edgy. In priceless old kinescopes, we see the young Rivers with TV hosts and mentors Jack Paar, Ed Sullivan, and, most notably, Johnny Carson, whose on-air prediction that she would be a big star put her on the comedy map overnight. (These and other snippets are so tantalizing, we wish there was more on Rivers’ early career and vintage TV appearances.)
But the meteoric trajectory of her career since then has not been without its wipeouts. Her famous break with Carson when as heir-apparent to The Tonight Show, she accepted an offer from a competing network (Fox) to create her own talk show, is discussed here, like everything else, without apology or defiance: it happened, its over. The failure of the Fox show, the subsequent suicide of her husband and business partner, Edgar, and the ongoing prickliness of her relationship with daughter Melissa (who comes off a little creepy here) are confronted as well.
Much of the film is devoted to Rivers workshopping a cathartic, autobiographical stage piece called “A Work In Progress.” (Her dream in high school was to become an actress; she only started doing comedy to pay the bills.) But while audiences adore her in Edinburgh and London, lukewarm reviews force her to reconsider taking the show to New York to reap more “rejection.”
Then, when things seem most dire, a victorious stint on “Celebrity Apprentice” and a Comedy Central roast fill up Rivers’ appointment book again. It’s another loop in the roller coaster ride for the woman who insightfully notes “My whole career is about acting,” in this discerning and caustic showbiz biography.
JOAN RIVERS: A PIECE OF WORK ★★★ With Joan Rivers. Directed by Ricki Stern and Annie Sundberg. An IFC release. Rated R. 84 minutes. Watch film trailer >>>
JOAN: The Q&A
Getting old sucks, and same-sex marriage might suck for gays. All this, from comedy maven Joan Rivers, who’s the spotlight of a surprisingly candid new doc. Let’s face it: Rivers is never short for words. We caught up with her recently—and got an earful. “If you take yourself seriously, you’re a fool,” she says. “Don’t you understand … that everything is just silly and outrageous and nonsense? And that is what my act is all about.” But wait—there’s more …
So, what could the world use more of?
Humor. No one ever fired a gun at somebody they were laughing and having a good time with. Humor conquers everything.
Oprah or Dr. Phil?
Well, he’s an ass. I’ve heard naughty things about him from people working for him. And when you’re nouveau riche, that’s when your true character comes out. And you could print all of that. I could care less.
Leno or Letterman?
I don’t watch either. I’m not on them. Go fuck themselves. Where are you now in the aftermath of the red carpet?
I think it’s gotten to be a rat fuck. And it’s gotten so boring and everybody looks good and has a stylist and looks the same. When I started it 15 years ago, it was so much fun because people dressed themselves.
In your recent stage work, you talk about aging.
Aging sucks. Getting older is horrible! We’re all deflated. Get ready for a very sloppy third act. You look in the mirror and you go, “Who is that?” You look at a picture and say, “That’s my mother!”
There has to be something good about it?
Nothing. Nothing! You’re older. People ignore you. You’re invisible. You can’t get as much work as you used to. Your friends die … tell me—what’s good about age? You don’t get wiser. You get senile.
So, what’s the best advice you’ve been given?
“Put on blinders, like horses wear. Run your own race.” And I absolutely listened to that one. I am running my own race. That’s it.
What’s the most interesting thing you’ve learned about yourself lately?
That I really can’t stick on a diet. I am all for dieting until you give me a piece of fruitcake or cake with icing on it.
Well, when you get something with frosting in front of you …
Please! Can you imagine if I was dieting and I was in the Twin Towers on 9/11? My last thought would have been: “I could have had that Danish!” Fuck the poached eggs. I want eggs Benedict! | Greg Archer