I’ve known people who are aging but can’t seem to let go of the selves that they used to be. I’m thinking particularly of journalists who hang on to their jobs, not because they have anything compelling to say or because they love the “action,” although there is something obviously addictive about the day-to-day pulse of a newsroom. I’m talking about something else: Need. I’ve known older journalists who need to be in print, maybe as a way of affirming their existence. I have a byline, therefore I am. Something like that.
Obviously, that kind of need causes many to overstay their welcome. I thought about that while watching the new documentary Joan Rivers: A Piece of Work. Rivers, captured for one year at the age of 75, hasn’t lost much off her fast ball, but that’s not the issue: She needs to perform. She needs it so much that she takes jobs she wouldn’t have touched during her prime-time days as a groundbreaking female comic.
And she did break ground. Comics such as Moms Mabley and Phyllis Diller preceded Rivers, but in the 1980s, when Rivers hit her stride, female comics were still something of a rarity. Beyond that, Rivers wasn’t afraid to use the F-word or to make jokes about sex. She was nobody’s idea of a happy homemaker. She’s still not.
At the age of 75, Rivers’ expansive repertoire includes a joke about anal sex. In another off-color bit, she talks about how her daughter turned down a $200,000 Playboy offer to show her breasts. Using a graphic expression, Rivers says she thought her daughter should have doubled the price and shown everything.
There’s something almost nymphomaniacal about River’s need to get laughs, which she admits springs from a mixture of insecurity and anger. The need to be noticed and the need to express mingle in a cocktail that results in an after-taste that’s both pathetic and admirable. When it comes to laughter, Rivers’ insatiability takes over. You admire her perseverance but feel a tinge of embarrassment about the way she continues to be obsessed with a career, which – in her case – has become inseparable from herself.
Like most comics, Rivers hardly serves as a model of contentment. She has had her share (maybe more) of plastic surgery; she’s lost a husband to suicide; she has a spiky but enduring relationship with her daughter, Melissa, She’s been hot and not. She’s sold jewelry on TV, and makes no bones about her need for money. If Rivers has a motto, it might be something like, “I’ll do anything. Just pay me.”
There always has been something garish and inappropriate about Rivers, like a dirty-mouthed Hadassah lady who has gone irredeemably rogue.
That kind of combativeness reeks of defiance, but there’s more to Rivers than earned outrage. Rivers is so driven to perform that she thinks of her entire life as a performance. She sees herself as more actress than comedian. No wonder her day (and the film) starts with a heavy application of make-up, shown by directors Riki Stern and Annie Sundberg in a series of shocking close-ups.
Then there’s River’s New York apartment, which is decorated in a style that might be called Jewish palatial “This,’’ Rivers informs us, “is how Marie Antoinette would have lived if she’d had money.”
Rivers is funny.
She’s also brave. At one point, Rivers allows the filmmakers to show her trying out a joke about Michelle Obama. She says Jacqueline Kennedy became Jackie “O.” Should we think of the equally elegant Michelle Obama as “Blakie-O?” Rivers’ staff rightly steers her away from a joke that’s both racially and comically off the mark.
On stage, Rivers rarely misses a beat. Her timing seems better now than it did in her early days, shown by Stern and Sundberg in a variety of clips from TV appearances with Johnny Carson and other TV hosts.
I don’t know if Rivers’ mind runs deep, but it’s difficult to take your eyes off her. She evokes mixed reactions, like riding to a train wreck in an elegant dining car. She’s unashamedly addicted to luxury. At a Thanksgiving dinner in her apartment, she tells the assembled guests that each time she gets into a limo, she thanks God for the privilege. She means it.
As revealed in the film, the thing that Rivers fears most is an empty date book. She’s not filling her later years with ladies luncheons and card games. For Rivers, a full date book means work. Gigs. The grind of travel. The backseat of another limo. A good day is a day without pause for reflection, say a morning and afternoon of promotional appearances topped by a stand-up gig, either on TV or in a club.
When many bullets are fired, not all of them hit the mark, and Rivers has had her share of disappointments. An autobiographical play receives unkind reviews in London after its debut at an Edinburgh theater festival in Scotland. It’s not clear whether anyone asked, but Rivers refuses to take the show to New York for fear of getting clobbered. Thick as Rivers skin is, she’s not prepared for a drubbing similar to one she took for a New York stage appearance earlier in her career.
She probably was right to worry about a New York critical reception. Writing in the Guardian, Brian Logan began a review of Rivers’ strangely titled Joan Rivers: A Work in Progress by a Life in Progress thusly:
“To accuse Joan Rivers of ego is like complaining that the Pope is Catholic. It comes with the territory. But even by her standards, this is a remarkable exercise in self-mythologising.”
In the film, Rivers mixes ego with awareness. She knows, for example, that there will be endless plastic surgery jokes at a Comedy Central roast; she’s sick of them, but reassures herself about participation because the money is good.
Joan Rivers: A Piece of Work doesn’t qualify as a definitive piece of portraiture. You won’t learn that Rivers graduated from Barnard College, where she studied English literature and anthropology. (She’s often filmed in front of shelves lined with books, and you get the impression that she’s read them.) She doesn’t discuss things she’s previously written about, bulimia and attempted suicide. Her appearances as a Red Carpet commentator at awards shows gets short shrift.
I suppose that a documentary such as Joan Rivers: A Piece of Work can seem like one more expression of boundless vanity. “I’ll show you some unflattering moments, so long as you keep looking.” That sort of thing. But Stern and Sundberg get what they came for – a revealing portrait of a woman who has gone where few women before her attempted to go, and where few people of any gender have enjoyed real success.
Odd, too, because you’d hardly expect this directing team to be intrigued by a woman who believes a victory on Donald Trump’s Celebrity Apprentice might be just the thing to revive a fading career. In previous films, Stern and Sundberg dealt with genocide in Darfur (The Devil Came on Horseback) and a man who spent 20 years in jail for a rape and murder he didn’t commit (The Trails of Daryl Hunt).
But Stern and Sundberg are intrigued by Rivers, and so are we. Although it’s not the least of reasons to see this film, Rivers comedy prowess claims a surprising low position on the list of things that make A Piece of Work so damn compelling.
Stern and Sundberg leave us with a telling portrait of a woman who absolutely refuses to go gently into any good night. Seen in that light, Rivers is fighting a battle she – like everyone else – can’t win.
Still, you get the idea that when Rivers does arrive on the other side, she’ll take a first-things-first approach to the transition. She’ll put on make-up, find the best plastic surgeons in the afterlife and look for an audience. On film, Rivers doesn’t talk much about her attitude toward death. I’m guessing, though, that nothing would appall her more than the idea of eternal rest.