Friday, September 5, 2014

'Joan Rivers: A Piece of Work' Documentary Reveals Comedienne's Hidden Depths

For many young adults, Joan Rivers is that plastic faced comedienne who's had one too many face lifts -- an aging caricature who stands on the red carpet screaming "Who are you wearing?" to vapid celebrities when she's not hawking her eponymous line of chunky jewelry to wannabe fashion mavens on QVC.
Can we talk?
So when my 22-year-old daughter, Laura, and I walked out of the theater after seeing the new documentary about Joan Rivers' life, cleverly titled Joan Rivers: A Piece of Work, I was intrigued by her reaction. "I had no idea there was so much to her," Laura told me after learning the fascinating back story of this now 77-year-old comedy icon.

Filmed during Joan Rivers' 76th year of life by documentary film makers Ricki Stern and Anne Sundberg (who previously produced films on such sober topics as genocide in Darfur and the false murder and rape conviction of a North Carolina man, Joan Rivers: A Piece of Work likely caused some initial head scratching as to why this serious duo of documentarians would select such a frivolous and superficial subject as Joan Rivers to follow around for 14 months.

Yet Stern and Sundberg managed to turn Rivers into a meaningful and fascinating object of study, depicting her as a multi-dimensional woman with far more depth and intelligence than the cartoonish character she deliberately portrays on the flat surface of the TV screen. (When Rivers states toward the end of the movie that her comedienne persona is just a role she plays as an actress, we believe her.)

What struck me and Laura the most was how insecure and vulnerable Joan Rivers revealed herself to be underneath her marble exterior -- despite her stunning career success and decades-long reign as the Queen of Comedy. At one point in the movie, Rivers' manager joked that whenever he asked Rivers to check her schedule, she would quip she had to put on her sunglasses first because all the white space on her calendar (where club dates and TV appearances should be) was blinding. Even at 75, a blank date on the calendar was as mortifying to Rivers as staying home on a Saturday night would be for a teenager. Instead of viewing it as a good excuse to relax or recreate, Rivers saw the absence of bookings as a blatant rejection of her talent and, by extension, herself. To paraphrase Descartes, "She works, therefore she is."

Another segment that revealed a deeper side to Rivers was her Thanksgiving day pilgrimage with her grandson, Cooper, (Melissa's son) to deliver food to disabled people in New York City. She banters easily with a legally blind ex-photographer named Flo Fox, whose moxie charms the hard-to-impress Rivers. The meeting also saddens her: Rivers has personally experienced the fickle finger of fate and knows how ephemeral good fortune can be.

Of all the scenes in the movie, Rivers' gig at a Wisconsin casino was the most dramatic and revealing. After she tells a relatively bland joke about Helen Keller being the perfect kid because she couldn't talk, a heckler shouts, "That's not funny if you have a deaf son." Rivers barks right back, "Oh, yes it is!" informing the man her mother is also deaf and that she lived for ten years with a man who had only one leg.

"Comedy is to make everybody laugh at everything and deal with things, you idiot!" Joan informed the upset father, though she cut him some slack later that night as she reflected on camera how filled with anger the man must be about his son's situation. By this point in the film, we know that "Can-We-Talk?" Rivers is not just talk. She sincerely believe her spiel about using comedy as a way to cope, making jokes about Nazi atrocities toward Jews (Rivers is Jewish) as well as her husband's suicide -- two subjects that could easily sear her own raw nerves.

Rivers told Letterman Adelle should "add fried chicken"
to the title of her son "Rolling in the Deep"
While each scene in "Joan Rivers: A Piece of Work" is a treat, the most interesting visuals in the movie are seeing the young Joan Rivers in flashback scenes with Jack Paar and Johnny Carson, seeing Joan Rivers with no make up on and seeing Joan Rivers' massive card catalog -- drawers filled with index cards of jokes the comedienne has written throughout the years ("Why should a woman cook? So her husband can say 'My wife makes a delicious cake' to some hooker?"). Rivers' joke collection comprises thousands of jokes stored alphabetically by category, the way an OCD housewife might organize appetizers and desserts in her recipe box.

Leaving the theater, my daughter and I were left with a different impression of Joan Rivers than the one we had when we walked inside, an image that supplanted the plastic and shallow version of Rivers we've observed in the comedienne's latter years. It will be the resilient, hard-working and quick witted Joan Rivers depicted by two talented documentarians whom we will picture in the future when the name Joan Rivers is mentioned -- the woman who helps us laugh at life's inevitable travails and not the laughing stock poster girl for plastic surgery chiseled in the minds of those who have never seen more than the two-dimensional character Joan Rivers portrayed by the actress of the same name.

This article was originally published on a quondam website platform in July 2010. It appears here for historical purposes.

Update September 5, 2014: Joan Rivers died yesterday at age 81. I was privileged to see her perform her stand-up act at the Crest Theater in Sacramento not long after I saw the documentary about her life and was bowled over by her amazing talent. Rivers' date book may now be blindingly white on earth, but I suspect she has the angels roaring with laughter.

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