Monday, July 12, 2010

Roxie's Watching: Joan Rivers: A Piece of Work

Sorry to recycle an image we used so recently, but, hey, we like it, and, more to the point, we sent out a crack team of queer film critters (Moose, Goose, and Geoffrey) last night to see Joan Rivers:  A Piece of Work, the documentary directed by Ricki Stern and Annie Sundberg.  It's been out for about a month and has been widely reviewed (quite perceptively by Manohla Dargis in the Times).  Still, we thought we'd weigh in, since residents of the national capital area had nothing better to do this weekend, being for some reason denied the privilege of seeing Annette Bening and Julianne Moore play gay in Lisa Cholodenko's much buzzed about new flick, The Kids Are All Right.  (Sources in Chicago tell us the buzz is justified, that Bening is "to die for," and the film "pretty perfect."  You heard it here first, darlings.  The Kids opens in the DC area on Friday.)

Anyway:  Rivers.  The film is riveting and/but/if at times cringe-inducing.  The camera follows Rivers for a year, starting with her seventy-fifth birthday in 2008.  Stern is the daughter of a friend of Rivers, so the filmmakers have extraordinary access, though the comedian is hardly known for her high boundaries or reclusive tendencies, so one would be forgiven for imagining that the access wasn't that hard to get.  Indeed, the heart of the story is Rivers' willingness to do whatever it takes to keep herself onstage or in front of the camera as the cruel ageism of Hollywood diminishes her star power.  She will go anywhere, do anything, she tells us, in order to keep working -- in part to finance an opulent New York household but also to maintain a sense of being alive.  She acknowledges that for her real life is what happens on stage, before an audience, in those terrifying/gratifying moments of performance.  Everything else is just waiting or prepping for the next gig.

Some of the film's most fascinating moments, by the way, are those that show us how maniacally Rivers preps for those gigs, and by prep we don't just mean rehearsals or the regimens of hair, makeup, and cosmetic surgery that have made Rivers look so painfully plastic in recent years.  She also gives us a sense of the strenuous intellectual discipline that has fueled her career, taking the audience on a guided tour of her study, which is a vast archive of jokes the writer has produced and accumulated over the decades, typed out on index cards and stored (alphabetically and by subject matter) in a wall of card drawers.  Gazing at that wall, the researcher in Moose did a little happy dance in her theater seat, imagining the fun some lucky scholar will have some day poring over those materials to try to get a handle on the creative process and the cultural history so meticulously recorded on those thousands of cards.

The film does an admirable job of conveying the complexities of its subject without judging her, apologizing for her, or setting her up as an object of pity.  It depicts Rivers' prodigious strengths and her obvious weaknesses as well as the deep loneliness and the bone-crushing weariness of life on the road.  Rivers does most of the talking, though we get insightful comments from assistants, managers, and agents and from daughter Melissa, who is both generous and clear-eyed about her mother and her mother's business.  Rivers rightfully boasts of her path-breaking accomplishments as a woman in comedy, but she also resists being seen as an icon because she realizes that such status relegates her to the dead space of the past.  "I'm still breaking paths," Rivers insists at one point, and a hilarious recent clip of her simulation of anal sex on stage at a small Manhattan club proves that is the case.  Indeed, even the historic clips of the comedian joking, for example, about childbirth or about abortion before it was legal throughout the country still sound pretty transgressive.  Think about it:  When was the last time you heard a really good and wholly unapologetic abortion joke on TV?

In one particularly telling moment, the audience is taken out onto the razor's edge where Rivers lives and breathes.  On stage at a casino in Wisconsin, she tells an unbelievably tasteless joke that uses Helen Keller as a punchline.  (Full disclosure:  We laughed.  And hated ourselves for it, of course.)  An audience member objects, loudly, saying the joke isn't funny if you have a deaf child, which he does.  Far from apologizing, Rivers turns on the guy and subjects him to a withering barrage of insults that then opens out into a defense of her brand of no-holds-barred humor.  She begins by telling the man her mother had gone deaf, then passionately justifies joking about taboo or painful subjects as a form of truth-telling.  She cites 9/11 as an example and ends with a bit about Osama Bin Laden that leaves her audience in stitches -- and clearly has them back on her side.  The camera then cuts to her offstage talking about the moment, expressing empathy for the guy with the deaf child but also eloquently describing the challenge of managing such an interruption to her shtick.  As much as any vignette in the film, this one shows us the fraught, vertiginous "piece of work" that is Joan Rivers.  Tasteless as the joke may be, you have to admire the deftness with which the comedian rescues the moment and, in all likelihood, the whole performance.

In her long career, Rivers has broken paths and, yes, crossed lines of taste and political correctness, but A Piece of Work shows that the anger and insecurity fueling her performances arise from a complex sense of outsiderhood that no amount of success has ever mitigated:  She is a Jew in a predominantly Christian country, a woman in a male-dominated business, a self-described ugly duckling in a looks-obsessed industry that prefers swans.  And young, docile swans at that.  Her rage is a rage against the cultural machineries that produce such pained alienation in those who don't fit a narrow grid of normativity and beauty.  In that, it is a rage both political and in some ways queer, which perhaps explains Rivers' appeal in gay and drag communities.

We might have wished Rivers had left her face alone as a way of thumbing her nose, as it were, at the twin evils of ageism and misogyny, but A Piece of Work respects its subject for tough choices made in the unforgiving glare of the spotlight.  Rivers has endured in that light far longer than most.  She deserves our respect, and if she makes us squirm in our seats from time to time, well, maybe that's just what we deserve.  The funny girls of Roxie's World believe that self-deprecation can be a powerful form of social critique and that making jokes on taboo subjects is vastly better than staying silent on taboo subjects.

On some blogs, Joan Rivers would get slapped with a trigger warning.  Around here, she gets a face lick and a PAWS UP for lifetime achievement.


  1. ". . .and if she makes us squirm in our seats from time to time, well, maybe that's just what we deserve." Couldn't have said it better myself. She DOES make us squirm. And she also makes us THINK. She has me thinking about silences and just how dangerous they are and just how profound is the move to break those silences. Joan Rivers has been doing that her entire career, and we are all the better for her having done so. Would that others would recognize that silence is often far from golden. . . .

    PAWS UP, indeed!

  2. She acknowledges that for her real life is what happens on stage, before an audience, in those terrifying/gratifying moments of performance.

    Sounds like she coulda been a professor.

  3. Thanks for this review. I really want to see it (and likely will, once it gets to DVD, but not before.)

    For a long time, I've seen Rivers's cosmetic surgery as a kind of performance art--she's playing a female female impersonator. Like Phyllis Diller, she never lied about it. She was up front all the way about what she did and exactly why she did it--to stay professionally alive and working. (Contrast that with Demi Moore, who's obviously had a great deal of work done everywhere, but who demurs and pretends like it's just all workouts and genes that keep her looking that way at nearly 50, after having had 3 kids.)

  4. Great point on plastic surgery as a form of performance art, Historiann. Reminds me of Orlan's work from the 90s, where she actually did that.

    We've always thought teaching was kind of a performance art, too, CPP -- and Moose has worked hard to make it as much like stand-up as possible, which may explain why she insisted on seeing this film!

  5. I’m really truly a converted fan of Joan. I saw her movie a few days ago and it completely changed the way that I see her, as a performer and a person. I’d have to say that it’s one of the best movies I’ve seen, documentary or otherwise.


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