Thursday, September 9, 2010

Joan Rivers: A Piece of Work

Directed by Ricki Stern and Annie Sundberg.  85 min.

It’s amazing what a “warts and all” documentary will do to your opinion of somebody.  I can’t say that I’ve ever been a big fan of the comedy stylings of Joan Rivers but after seeing this movie which explores a year in the life of the aging comedic icon, I have a great deal of empathy for her.  We see a tough broad on the outside masking (literally and figuratively, given her extensive cosmetic surgery) an almost pathologically insecure and vulnerable woman railing against age and insignificance.

The movie documents a year in the life of Joan Rivers and, although she jokes at the beginning that her datebook is so empty she needs sunglasses to read it, her schedule fills up quickly.  She’s starting rehearsals for an autobiographical play set to open in Edinburgh followed by London’s West End.  She’s still hawking jewellery on QVC.  She’s written another book and is on a promotional tour.  And whenever she’s back in New York, she constantly plays this one small comedy club, trying out new material.  There’s one sequence where immediately after a show in Los Angeles, she flies overnight to Minneapolis to endure a day of interviews, meet-and-greets, a show, and then gets back on the plane to do it all over again.  It’s a brutal schedule for anybody, let alone a 75-year-old, but it never seems to be enough.

We see a lot of what goes on behind the scenes and start to piece together Joan’s complicated persona.  Fuelling her fear of not having enough work is her ridiculously ornate apartment.  She says, “This is how Marie Antoinette would have lived if she’d had money.”  She clearly has a taste for expensive and beautiful things, but she also has a lot of people counting on her financially.  She has relatives who aren’t able to care for themselves.  And she’s paying for the kids of her housekeeper to go to private school.  The career has to keep all of this going.  Joan’s daughter Melissa comments that growing up it often felt like The Career was another sibling that required the attention of an entirely separate person.

Obsessions abound.  We see one room that has index card filing cabinets filling one wall from floor to ceiling.  On these thousands of index cards are her jokes from the last 30 years organized alphabetically by subject—every subject imaginable.  One drawer is intriguingly labelled “COOKING – TONY DANZA”.

Directors Ricki Stern and Annie Sundberg’s previous work includes documentaries about Darfur (The Devil Came on Horseback [2007]) and a wrongly convicted African-American (The Trials of Darryl Hunt [2006]).  The duo may seem like an odd choice to helm a celebrity bio-pic but they successfully show a fascinating and often wince-inducing portrait of a survivor.  Rivers’ bitterness and resentment are on full display but with context that shows us we don’t really know somebody until you get an idea of their pain.

Joan Rivers is a complicated mix of neuroses: a constant hunger for attention, a longing for respect that rarely comes, a need for non-stop work.  There are moments, and we see some of them, when she is grateful and happy.  But often, disappointment consumes her.  This is what has made her comedy so angry and mean-spirited.  And often funny, but not always.

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