Yesterday I had the pleasure of seeing Joan Rivers: A Piece of Work, the excellent new documentary about the brittle Jewess/comedienne by Ricki Stern and Anne Sundberg, with a live Q&A with Ms. Rivers immediately following the film. Going into the thing I wasn't really expecting much. I mean, I was expecting to enjoy it, because as a gay man with a love for stand-up and a filthy sense of humor, it's a genetic impossibility for me not to.
However, I was blown away by the intimate portrait the film paints. Filmed over one year, her 75th, Joan Rivers: A Piece of Work follows it's subject through her numerous commitments, both professional and personal, while she discusses her career along the way. As someone who has idolized Joan Rivers ever since I saw her putting on makeup with Miss Piggy in Muppets Take Manhattan (one of my formative babygay memories) it was fascinating to see her this up close and personal.
First and foremost, we get a good dose of the brash humor and razor-sharp wit (seriously, the woman is 75 and still has the timing and speedy delivery of comedians a third her age) that have made her famous. I particularly liked the scenes of her refining her act at New York's Cutting Room, writing out "vagina farts" on a cue card while laughing hysterically, or telling a joke about her daughter being an idiot for turning down a $500,000 Playboy offer ("She should have offered to show her pussy for an extra 400!"). The scene of her eviscerating a heckler at a Minnesota Indian casino show who took issue with her telling a Helen Keller joke (really? Helen Keller is off limits now?) was another highlight.
But, the fact that Joan Rivers is hilarious is hardly surprising. What was surprising was the Joan we get to see off stage. Stern and Sundberg show us a workaholic and deeply insecure Rivers who seems to have a constant voice in her head reminding her that all her success could be gone tomorrow. This mantra is what propels her to take any job that comes her way, to "do anything." She says it's for the money, but more so I think it's to stay relevant, to stay working, to stay in the spotlight by any means necessary.
This compulsion leads her to measure her success event by event, seemingly unable to look at her career as a big picture. At the Q&A afterwards (JEALOUS?!), somebody asked her whether she is able to get any satisfaction from her varied and prolific career, and she brushes it off, asking why should she? Even the praise from this documentary will be gone in a week, she said, and then she'll have to start over again.
Joan's insecurity and inability to look at her career for what it is are central to the film. During one scene, Joan is asked to take part in a star-studded tribute to George Carlin. Despite her comedy legend status, backstage she worries about comedians like John Stewart and Dennis Leary, who have teams of writers behind them, being funnier than her. The fact that she has been doing this for 50+ years, and has probably taken part in hundreds of events just like this seems to never cross her mind. To her, it's all about staying relevant against the constant stream of up-and-coming comedians. As Kathy Griffin put it in the film, the mark of a successful comedian is whether they are still working or not, a sentiment that appears central to the Joan Rivers philosophy.
And then there's the part dealing with her recent Comedy Central roast. To me, the episode was hands down the best roast the channel had done, and Rivers seemed to revel in the jabs about her age and heavily-surguried face. However, in A Piece of Work, we see that she in fact hated the whole process, and fretted about the onslaught of jokes about her face and age she was going to be subject to. When you view it in this context, of dozens of comedians delivering a barrage of personal jabs against a deeply insecure woman, rewatching the roast changes from hilarious to heartbreaking.
On a different note, one of the most interesting things we learn about Joan in Piece of Work is that from the get go, her desire was never to be a comedian, but a serious actress. In the film she says that comedy was just something she did to pay the bills while she tried to make it as an actress, and goes on to say that people can say she's ugly, or a bad comedian and that's fine, but if they say she's a bad actress, it's devastating. Plenty of female comedians have gone into comedy because for whatever reason they didn't fit the narrow mold required to be an actress, but the fact that Joan still feels this way, at this point in her career, is surprising.
Joan Rivers: A Piece of Work is an incredible film that gives incredible insight into a woman who has been a pop culture constant for over half a century. It manages to deliver huge gut-busting highs and emotional lows, as well as even delivering a little bit of shmaltz for good measure (the scene with her grandson Cooper is adorable. I got so jealous of that kid. Can you imagine having Joan fucking Rivers as your bubbe? That kid doesn't know how good he has it!). Beyond that, it's also a film about show business, and the life of constant rejection and abuse that performers have to deal with on a daily basis. It's a film about Joan Rivers, but a film about so much more as well. I highly recommend it.
(See! She was really there!!!)