Thursday, June 24, 2010
Film Review | Joan Rivers: A Piece of Work
Can We Talk?
by Thomas Delapa
Did you hear the one about the traveling septuagenarian comedienne?
Fans of comic Joan Rivers may want to stand up and applaud Joan Rivers: A Piece of Work as a labor of love. The less moved will have to work harder to find the punch lines—other than Rivers herself.
The butt of as many jokes as she’s delivered, Rivers might be most famous for being the self-described “poster girl” for plastic surgery. At age 77, Rivers continues to reinvent herself, at least facially, and by now all those nips and tucks have left her visage a taut, pinched mask, preternaturally frozen in time.
It was nearly 50 years ago that showbiz kingmaker Johnny Carson gave Rivers (born Joan Molinsky in Brooklyn) just the professional lift she needed. During a Tonight Show appearance, Carson told her, “You’re going to be a star.” The proclamation launched the catty, taboo-breaking comic into the big-time, leading to record albums, Las Vegas gigs, stints as talk-show host and even her own Hollywood movie (1978’s Rabbit Test—a real turkey).
A rare woman in the tough boys’ club of comedy, Rivers elevated self-deprecating humor to borderline masochism, savaging her looks and desperate love life with glee. She was the comic that audiences loved to watch hating herself. Today she’s progressed, if that’s the word, to raunchy elder stateswoman of the laugh circuit, opening the door for such R-rated comediennes as Kathy Griffin and Sarah Silverman. Yet in that distinctively loud and raspy voice, Rivers is quick to kvetch that, at her age, “Nobody wants you.”
Between a barrage of jokes and one-liners, some smartly dead-on, co-directors Ricki Sterns and Annie Sundberg give the quick-witted Rivers the diva treatment, indulging her whims and complaints. But it’s no laughing matter when Rivers ruefully talks about her late husband and business partner, Edgar Rosenberg, whose 1987 suicide left her emotionally and financially devastated.
In a career that has had more ups and downs than a Vegas hooker (that’s a joke, folks), Rivers is undoubtedly a survivor. Despite the raw, profanity-laced routines that might make a sailor blush, Rivers also plays doting Jewish mother to her grown daughter, Melissa. And every Thanksgiving, she makes a point of personally delivering turkey dinners to shut-ins for a New York City charity.
While other stand-up comics, male or female, would be sitting down at her age, Rivers is almost neurotically determined to go on with the show. At the beginning of the film, she glumly reviews “the book” with her staff, showing the camera the dearth of engagements on her calendar. She insists she will take any job (“I’ll even wear a diaper”) for the money, a necessity given her luxurious lifestyle, bevy of assistants and gaudy Louis XIV-style Manhattan flat. She isn’t picky, taking everything from a gig in a seedy Wisconsin casino to cheesy TV guest shots on Donald Trump’s Celebrity Apprentice.
Rivers’ true labor of love, an autobiographical play, sinks during tryouts in the U.K. From the semi-sublime to the sadistically ridiculous, Rivers also reluctantly agrees to be roasted for a Comedy Channel special, where fellow comics pay tribute to her with an assault of lewd, wincingly below-the-belt insults.
Here’s the kicker: Since the documentary was filmed two years ago, all this slavish work has returned Rivers to the top of the showbiz heap, at least for now. Those blank calendar pages are now full. No joke, she was even asked to host the Miss USA Pageant. As she told Entertainment Weekly, “Beautiful gets you everywhere.”
Originally published in Conducive Chronicle, 6/22/10