Joan Rivers: A Piece of Work

Provides the illusion of depth
Ricki Stern, Anne Aundberg
Joan Rivers, Melissa Rivers
The Setup: 
Documentary about… you guessed it, during the year of her 75th birthday.

I never had much interest in Joan Rivers, but I have to say the flurry of interviews about her coming out in advance of this film wore me down, and I ended up seeing it. Plus, it’s amazing what a wish for air conditioning can do. In the interviews, she comes off as a tough-but-vulnerable woman driven by some bizarre inability to just relax and enjoy what she’s earned, keeping her out relentlessly pursuing the spotlight at her advanced age. And while the movie was good, and I’m not sorry I saw it, I didn’t get much more out of it than I have from reading the interviews.

We open with close-ups of Joan’s eyes and lips before makeup is applied. This is one of the few times she looks old. When you look at her, throughout the film, you see a face that looks like a woman in her forties, above a neck and hands that look like a woman her age. There are a few times in the film where she tears up, and you can see her eyes welling with tears, but her face doesn’t really move and certainly doesn’t wrinkle. At first she looks somewhat like a plastic love doll—unmoving flesh with a big, red mouth, but eventually you just get used to it. Although it must be said that her appearance makes a major impression throughout the entire film.

One of the main things that comes through in the film is that Rivers is not ready to retire, and likely never will be. She says the worst thing is a blank calendar page with no bookings. Later in the film she jokes that she has to work today because she didn’t save for retirement earlier. Nevertheless, she lives in a spectacular[ly tacky] Upper East Side apartment that can generously be described as “gaudy.” She jokes “This is how Marie Antionette would have lived if she’d had money.” In the first stand-up scene we see her making fun of the crappiness of the venue, and I know just from seeing her name around New York that she is not always being booked into places that are, um, lending prestige to her name. But she doesn’t care—she just wants to work. Constantly. Virtually every moment in the film she is either performing, on her way to or from a performance, or pursuing new lines of business.

The movie covers various major portions of her life. It glances at her marriage to Edgar Rosenberg, who she seems to have loved very deeply. She talks about how Johnny Carson gave her her big break, telling her she was going to be a star on his show, bringing her on often, until he finally made her his permanent guest host. This led to her being offered her own talk show, which led to her being completely disowned by Carson. She says she called him right away and he hung up on her, while he had always said that he found out about her show from the network, not from her. One fact that the movie conveniently omits is that her show was going to be scheduled directly opposite Carson’s, so that after bringing her up and nurturing her career, she was now host of a direct competitor. It would be nice to know her thoughts on this, but while this film is honest and revealing… it’s not THAT honest and revealing. Anyway, the show is flopping, and River’s husband is the producer. The network tells her it’s let Edgar go or lose the show. When they protest, the network fires them both. Soon after, Edgar killed himself. Rivers seems heartbroken and furious to this day. She and her daughter Melissa later starred in a TV movie about the death, playing themselves, which some find horrifying, but which Joan says helped them both exorcise their pain.

If you follow Rivers at all—and I don’t, yet somehow I still know this—you know that Melissa had some serious issues with her mother, but that they’ve reconciled and were known for doing red carpet coverage together. Given all that, Melissa is in this movie less than you’d think. The red carpet stuff is alluded to, but not really covered at all. Melissa says that her mother was always so driven she used to refer to “the career” as if it were a sibling. There’s a good scene in a limo in which Joan tells Melissa she has to stop smoking. Melissa says she’s down to 2 or 3 a day. Joan ignores her and continues with she’s going to get cancer, etc. Melissa says “Okay, but give me credit for cutting down.” It’s as if Joan doesn’t hear her, and the whole thing just cycles through a few more times.

A good part of the first part of the film shows Rivers working on a play about her life, starring her. She opens it in Scotland at a fringe festival, then takes it to London. She is entirely dependent on the reviews in London. When opening night is a success and the audience seems thrilled, Rivers refuses to celebrate, or believe that it’s a success, until she sees the reviews the next day. The reviews are not great, and she decides not to try to take the show to New York, because, she says, she couldn’t stand to get those reviews again. Later, we see Rivers filming the Comedy Central roast of her, which she dreads. “It’s going to be all plastic surgery and that I’m old,” she says, and that’s exactly what it is. She smiles and laughs as she sits there, enduring the jokes about her, but she seems to be in real pain.

Okay, so let’s start hitting highlights. The plastic surgery issue is not avoided, but it also isn’t really discussed. At one point we see Joan being interviewed and the interviewer says “We want to be loved for our sense of humor and who we are” and Joan replies “I just want to be loved.” Another time, Joan says “No man has ever told me that I’m beautiful. That maybe I look good today or whatever, but never that I am beautiful.” She delivers meals to housebound people on Thanksgiving because “Life’s so cruel.” She then has a bunch of people over to her house for a huge Thanksgiving dinner. Toward the end, she has to fire her long-time manager, because he has a habit of vanishing for long periods when she needs him. We then see her crying and upset, saying “He was one of the last people I could look at and say ‘Remember when…’”

So Rivers did a flurry of interviews to support this film, of which I read two, and while I enjoyed the film and was never bored for a second, in retrospect I feel like I could have just stuck to those two interviews. The only additional thing the movie really offers is a few emotional moments where you feel bad for Rivers and understand more of where she’s coming from, but if you were honest… how much do you really need to know where she’s coming from?

In one of the interviews Rivers says that the only way she’d agree to do the movie is if it were totally honest. Well, if you believe that, I have some invisible luck beads—proven to work!—that you should send me money for. Yes, it gives the illusion that it is honest about certain things that are apparently the things Rivers is okay being honest about—that she’s very driven, that she’s sensitive to criticism, that she’s endured a lot of heartbreak—but all the “honest” stuff is stuff that only continues to build her brand, and a lot of things you might want to know, like how does she FEEL about the results of all that plastic surgery? Why does she think she’s so obsessively driven, and why can’t she just relax? What does she think about criticism about the tackiness of doing her own TV movie or QVC stuff? Or other criticism of her? So all that stuff might be mentioned or alluded to, giving one the impression that this film is “covering” the topic, but ultimately there’s not much real coverage to it. It did inspire me to a new movie epithet, however: a “3-D movie:” …one that gives the illusion of depth, but only if you look at it through certain lenses.

Should you watch it: 

If you like and want to know more about Joan Rivers. Everyone else can just read a few interviews and get the same net effect.