Friday, July 9, 2010

Joan Rivers: A Piece of Work

Joan Rivers has been in the industry for more than forty years, but my only real memory of the queen comedienne is as red carpet fixture.  With her instantly recognizable, yet ever changing face, she wailed on celebrities with a nasty wit with that nasally, unmistakable bark of hers.  She was sometimes funny, sometimes just mean, but still kind of mesmerizing to look at.  To watch the documentary Joan Rivers: A Piece of Work, she's where's most comfortable-- center stage.  The film opens with a candid shot of that iconic mug, sans make-up, and therefore, subtly gets the whole plastic surgery thing out of way instantly.  And as the film chronicles a year of her life, she is indeed, a piece of work, but still a mesmerizing presence.

The film starts at a fairly low-point in her career, in a career of many lows, she has club dates at small dive places, the likes of which you would think below her.  She also has a calendar that's very free, a distressing thing for Rivers.  What the film accomplishes most is presenting a woman who's a constant workaholic, desperate to keep doing the only thing she knows how to do, and something she intends to keep doing until the end.  It's surprisingly intimate with it's subject, and Rivers comes off a very human egomaniac.  While she's perhaps the joke to today's climate, she's also aware of it, as evident of the fact that the woman never turns any jobs-- be on a cruise ship, QVC, the Celebrity Apprentice, or a Comedy Central Roast (all of those is in part of the Versailles- royalty themed palate of her luxurious apartment, no doubt; she takes the Queen of Comedy mantra to heart.)

But what is revelatory, perhaps moreso to younger audiences like myself who were unable to experience the Joan Rivers glory days of groundbreaking comedienne, and Johnny Carson regular, is that thanks to archival clips we get a see a fresher (and also a naturally prettier) woman breaking down walls of male-dominated comedy.  And she's pretty funny.  Rivers is just a dirty and edgy as the dudes, telling jokes about sex and abortion light years before the American public was ready (are we even ready now?), and through line to the successes of people like Kathy Griffin, her bitchy comic heir.  That's what's most refreshing about this documentary, directed by Rickie Stern and Ruth Stunberg, the history.

Along with that history comes pain-- like the suicide of her husband Edgar, and the snubbing of Carson when Rivers was offered her talk show.  Rivers herself handles it like a seasoned professional, playing ribbing and snapping about everything (she's always hardest on herself), yet opens the door slightly to reveal a true vulnerable side, masked by her sharp tongue.  The documentary itself is hardly groundbreaking, but the subject is always "on," and fascinating.  B+

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