Before she was a cosmetic surgery punchline, QVC bag lady, and poster child for Celebrity-Apprentice-as-career-rehab facility, Joan Rivers was a groundbreaking comedienne, as famous for her “Can we talk?” tagline as she was for being Johnny Carson’s handpicked permanent guest host. That instantly recognizable scratch-rasp of a voice was notorious for scraping the edges of good taste, and it paid off handsomely.
But those glory days, like her youth, are long gone, and the aching absence of those golden years wears on Rivers more heavily than any sagging jawline or jowl ever could. The tragicomedy of this is painfully, hysterically bared in the new documentary Joan Rivers: A Piece of Work by filmmakers Ricki Stern and Annie Sunberg. Darfur and wrongfully accused rapists seem to have been a strangely effective proving ground for these two gifted chroniclers who now tackle the complex neuroses that comprise one of entertainment’s veteran performers.
Comedy is all about timing, and so, apparently, is filming a documentary about a comedian. The filmmakers began their unfettered gaze at Rivers during a spectacularly low point in her notoriously up-and-down career. It was just before Rivers’ 75th birthday and the only club dates she was booking were 4:30 afternoon sets in Bronx comedy dives, which could account for Rivers’ overcoming her initial reticence at being a willing subject: she needed the gig.
And what a gig it turned out to be. Scandalously funny, sadly pathetic, embarrassingly needy, intense and raw, Joan Rivers playing Joan Rivers is, literally, the role of a lifetime for a woman scorned by everyone who doubts her talent as an actress, something she desperately longs to be appreciated for. When Rivers is laughing, she is laughing all the way to the bank. When she’s crying, the sadness is real. But be warned, though the tears may not be of the crocodile variety, her easy rages are as swift and as merciless as a killer reptile. Just wait for the cringe-worthy scene where she eviscerates a heckler for criticizing her joke about, of all things, Helen Keller.
Yet the diva earns the respect she demands, if not by sheer life force or incisive wit of her comedy, which is ultimately her saving grace, but for her staggering perseverance and dedication to the show, and the business. Whether it’s playing to a bunch of right-wing retirees in Wisconsin, standing with her peers at a George Carlin tribute, or delivering meals (in a limo, natch) for God’s Love We Deliver, Rivers brings her A-game. And so do the filmmakers, offering a fascinating study of a living legend.
At press time, Joan Rivers: A Piece of Work was to have continued its run at Angelika Film Center (www.angelikafilmcenter.com).
Steven Foster is a regular contributor to OutSmart magazine.