Tuesday, August 17, 2010

The Last Woman Standing: Joan Rivers - A Piece of Work

Johnny Carson: “Some men prefer smart women.”

Joan Rivers: “Oh, please, Johnny. No man ever put his hand up a woman’s dress looking for a library card.”

In the opening scene of Joan Rivers - A Piece of Work, a compelling and discomfiting new documentary by Ricki Stern and Annie Sundberg (The Trials of Darryl Hunt, The Devil Came on Horseback), we see in close-up the 75-year-old actress and comedian Joan Rivers having make-up applied to her face while flashbacks of her long career drift by. Although that made-up face remains for the entire film, Joan Rivers, the performer, artist and human being, ultimately shows her true portrait behind that mask. She reveals an actor whose work as an entertainer is perched right on the edge of that desperate need for acceptance. Rivers presents herself as the last woman standing in a world that's now wedded to youth and beauty. In doing so, she gives a triumphant, humourously vitriolic performance as a comedy queen who refuses to go quickly - and quietly - into the dark night.

comic Phyllis Diller.
While Stern and Sundberg rightly place Rivers in the tradition of female comics like Moms Mabley and Phyllis Diller, whose routines were all about the revenge of the "ugly" girls angry at a world that worshipped beauty, Rivers took their characterizations even further. Understanding all too well that she was truly an outsider in the world of celebrity, she didn't need to caricature her anger (as Mabley and Diller did). Rivers instead placed herself on the inside as if she had every right to be there - even with her loud, scratchy voice. She became the uncomfortable reminder that ugliness has its appeal, too, that maybe there were more ugly motherfuckers out there than those ingenues sweetening up the culture. Even if all her plastic surgeries, make-up and mad desire to keep the face of Joan Rivers permanent, the drive to stay on top poured through any preconceived ideas of simple vanity. Joan Rivers' anger and determination gives an adorable pungency to the movie and Stern and Sunberg don't back away, or make any apologies. In Joan Rivers - A Piece of Work, Rivers, unlike comic Don Rickles (who Rivers appears with in Vegas), doesn't go soft but instead gives careerism a good name. She recognizes that celebrity culture is fickle, corrupt and transient, so she makes herself the cayenne pepper added to the sauce.

Throughout Joan Rivers - A Piece of Work, Stern and Sundberg follow her through a year of struggling to book gigs and touring - mounting a play in England, selling jewellery, signing books and doing stand-up in rotting basement clubs - as she faces each challenge including an appearance (with her daughter, Melissa) on Donald Trump's Celebrity Apprentice. The picture never poses a churlish view of Joan Rivers because she can do that all on her own (and has often made that the source of her comedy). In that sense, Sarah Silverman would be her most obvious inheritor. While Rivers became a huge star on Johnny Carson's Tonight Show (where she would sometime guest host), when she went to Fox to host her own program, Carson turned on her and never spoke to Rivers again. 

The film also delicately examines her relationship with manager-husband Edgar, who would commit suicide in 1987, and left her broke and feeling unwanted. (Fox had already cancelled her late night show.) Joan Rivers - A Piece of Work is about a fallen performer picking herself up and using naked determination to stay on top of her game. It doesn't matter whether she has to do a roast and endure abuse from other younger comics (it paid well), or firing her long-time manager because he isn't dependable, Joan Rivers accepts that the wind is in your face as often as it's at your back. Either way, she keeps going like a cranky energizer bunny.

Part of the charm of Joan Rivers - A Piece of Work is that it neither revels in show-biz masochism, or attempts to "uncover" the woman behind the artist. Joan Rivers is a persona. But the persona is also Joan Rivers. Whether she is chastising her daughter Melissa for continuing to smoke cigarettes, or defending her when she's taken down on Celebrity Apprentice, Rivers makes no plea for sympathy or harbors scorn. When she makes a caustic joke on stage, an audience member rebukes her insensitivity and she turns on him by telling him that it's comedy and we all laugh at cruel things. But Joan Rivers - A Piece of Work doesn't make us laugh at the naked ambition of Joan Rivers, rather we come to accept her on her own terms. Even though her make-up never comes off and the performer never shuts down, the face of Joan Rivers, unabashed in an endless pursuit of the limelight, slowly bleeds through its pancake softness.  

-- Kevin Courrier is a writer/broadcaster, film critic, teacher and author. His forthcoming book is Reflections in the Hall of Mirrors: American Movies and the Politics of Idealism.         


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