I didn’t get around to watching Comedy Central’s roast of Joan Rivers, and now I’m glad I didn’t. Turns out, Rivers sat in her limo before the show began, absolutely dreading it.
She knew it was going to be a litany of cruel jokes about her age and her plastic surgery abuse—and she wanted no part of it. She took the gig for the money, plain and simple. So she put on her game face as a lineup of (mostly male) comedians barraged her with mean-spirited put-downs about her appearance. (Brad Garrett screamed at the sight of her.)
There are many such cringe-inducing moments in the fabulous new documentary Joan Rivers: A Piece of Work—and also moments that will make you cry, cheer, and, most of all, laugh. You will leave this film remembering that Joan Rivers is one very funny woman (albeit a vulgar one). You will also see her as a woman of great strength, a true show biz survivor.
At 75 years of age, Rivers is all-too aware of her status in the show-biz arena: A has-been and something of a punchline.
But she still works—constantly. There’s small clubs (“Kathy Griffin has taken all of [the bigger ones],” she grouses), plus QVC, book tours, the red carpet (although that, too, has waned), and appearances on shows like Celebrity Apprentice, which, as if there was ever any doubt, she won. (Beating her own daughter along the way.)
No, don’t feel too sorry for Joan—she’s rich. She lives in an overstuffed New York apartment (“The way Marie Antoinette would live if she had money,” she quips) and gets chauffeured around via limousine. She has a staff. But she hustles for it—24/7.
“She never refuses a job,” we are told many times.
Arriving at a hotel at 3:30 am in God-knows-where, she says to the concierge, “I don’t care if God himself calls. I am not to be disturbed until 6:30.”
Remember, this woman is 75.
We learn that Joan Rivers has a thick skin, but never overlooks a slight. In the early 70s, she wrote and starred in a Broadway play called Fun City that opened to scathing reviews and closed 6 days later. She never forgot that—even if the rest of us did.
But the slight to end all slights—and in many ways, the defining moment of Joan’s life and career—came when she accepted an offer by the fledgling Fox television network to host her own late-night talk show. It would compete with theTonight Show, which was hosted by her mentor Johnny Carson. He famously hung up the phone when she told him the news and never spoke to her again. Shortly after the show was cancelled, Rivers’ husband and manager, Edgar Rosenberg, committed suicide.
That suicide created a rift between Joan and her daughter Melissa, that was mended by a—wait for it—made-for-TV movie in which the two played themselves. (!) Melissa remains a big part of her mother’s life.
“Her career was like me having a sister,” Melissa says, with only a small trace of regret.
As for Joan’s famous affinity for plastic surgery, it, too, looms over the film like a specter (we see many close-ups of her blotchy, makeup-free skin, sometimes swollen from the latest procedure). “I started with the plastic surgery,” Rivers says plainly. “Then I became the poster girl. Then I become the joke of it.”
Joan does allow herself a few moments of self-pity—when she talks about her friends who have died, or her occasional loneliness—but mostly she seems to love her life, relish her life’s work, and see the comic absurdity in all of it.
“My whole life has been jokes,” she says at one point, showing off a filing cabinet that is stuffed with jokes in alphabetical order. (“Cooking to Tony Danza” reads one file).
And with the success Joan Rivers: A Piece of Work (it’s gotten rave reviews and was a huge hit at Sundance), it seems, as usual, that Joan Rivers will get the last laugh.
Note: I caught Joan Rivers: A Piece of Work at the Landmark E Street Cinema in D.C. As of today, there is no opening date set for Baltimore. I’ll let you know if that changes.