August 11, 2010

Joan Rivers: A Piece of Work

August 10, 2010

Boy do I wish I could have dreamed up a character like Joan Rivers: sassy, profane, bold, and scared out of her mind. Such a strange brew, so much larger than life.

Here is a woman who talks straight about everything, shouting down an angry heckler during one of her stand-up routines because he takes offense at the fact that she’s making fun of deaf people. Nothing is sacred, she yells at him. Everything awful about life needs to be laughed at. That’s how you survive.

OK. Fair enough. Yet this documentary of her 75th year opens with a tight shot of her face, no make-up, wrinkles and all. It’s not a pretty picture that quickly dissolves behind the skillfully painted-on eyebrows, lips, and dewy skin. What you see is a mask. She admits that age is the one mountain she can’t climb, but she’s doing everything she can to deny that she’s a septuagenarian.

Why? Because if she looks old, she won’t be able to perform. If she’s not on stage, if her calendar is blank and she has no more club dates, comedy roasts, QVC appearances, she’ll simply cease to exist. Like her daughter Melissa says, she realized growing up that she had a sibling, her mother’s career—“the career” as everyone in the family called it.

A couple of times, I got the feeling that Rivers was posing and mugging for the camera. Otherwise, the filmmakers remain unobtrusive, but they don’t need to interject themselves much. Rivers is up to the task of carrying her story all by herself.

The one-liners come so fast that it’s hard to remember most of them. I’ll have to see the film again with paper and pen in hand to copy the best ones down. My favorite, though, is her response Johnny Carson's disingenuous assertion that men are interested in women for their minds.

“I’ve never known a man to stick his hand up a woman’s skirt looking for her library card,” Rivers replies drolly. The audience response is thunderous.

When she’s performing in small nightclubs, the f-bombs fall at a steady rate. Most of the time, people who overuse the f-word lack imagination. Not Rivers, who riffs on anal sex and Blackberries in one breath and Marie Antoinette in the next with lots of swearing that fits right in. I never realized how absolutely hilarious she is because I’ve mainly seen her on TV, where she has to behave herself. (Funny that her most recent coup was winning "Celebrity Apprentice," where ironically she beat out Melissa.)

The documentary glosses over her early life and her marital woes. Her husband Edgar’s suicide gets short shrift. Uncharacteristic reticence from a woman who seems determined to let you see her kitchen, her dog, the rows and rows of metal boxes that contain every joke she’s ever told.

Still, she’s a trouper with a work schedule that makes me yearn for an immediate nap, a woman who’ll say anything, even in these most politically correct times. She’s terrified, and she’s not.

That's why I kept thinking it would be a trip to write a meta-biography about Rivers, a person both so real and unreal that it’s hard to tell whether she exists at all.

Here are a review and a trailer. Enjoy.

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