JOAN RIVERS: A PIECE OF WORK
A snapshot of the life of comedienne Joan Rivers in her 75th year, exposing her private and professional dramas as she fights to keep her career thriving in a business driven by youth and beauty.
Review by Louise Keller:
I laughed, I cried and I was inspired. Delivering far more than you expect, this knock-out doco spits out the essence of Joan Rivers, who admits she is only truly happy when she's on stage. Paradoxically, behind the expletives and the brash persona of this self-centred 75 year old comedic icon, there is a highly insecure artist who attacks each day as though it may be her last. While we may not actually see her without her cosmetic make-up and hair do, we feel as though we have cut right through the gloss in Ricki Stern and Anne Sundberg's fabulously funny, revealing and affecting film.
Comedy and tragedy is a hair's breadth away from each other and it is clear that Joan Rivers' entire life is a fine balancing act between the two. No topic is taboo - from the suicide of her husband and partner to the previously fractured (but now solid) relationship with her daughter Melissa. A chronic workaholic who enjoys her creature comforts, her energy is enviable ('a busy schedule is happiness'). Invited to tag along - to her plush Manhattan apartment ('Marie Antoinette would have lived like this if she had the money'), business meetings, conference calls, in make-up, rehearsals, book signings, TV performances and live performances - we are there for the ups and the downs. We can feel the impact of the barbs from the reviews of her self-penned play in London as they are read to her in the back of a limo. It is the reviews and the awards that are all-important to this high achiever. Pain registers on that famously surreal face that has become a trademark for the plastic surgeon's knife (She says this about plastic surgery: 'I began as advocate, then poster girl, then joke').
We ogle fascinated, at footage pre-cosmetic surgery and are reminded of those heady days when Johnny Carson told her 'You're going to be a star' and everything changed. We hear from those close to her - from her manager, agent, PA, daughter - as well as the fans. Above all, we get to understand and admire her sense of humour. Beyond the crude, the rude and the shocking, is an arrow at bulls-eye honesty. She's quick on her feet, too. There's a moment during a live performance when a member of the audience takes loud exception to a joke about a deaf person, citing he has a deaf son. The way she not only deflects this issue, but turns it into a grand statement about her largesse of spirit as she explains her life's philosophy, is overtly moving. There are documentaries about artists and there are documentaries. This is one of THE documentaries, one that soars with a guarantee to uplift and move you in a way you never expected.
Review by Andrew L. Urban:
My favourite line (but only just, there are many right behind) is when Joan Rivers makes her way in dread to a celebrity roast of her: "If I'd invested wisely I wouldn't be here." By this time of course we know where she's invested: in her lifestyle, which includes a giant penthouse apartment in New York. "This is how Marie Antoinette would have lived if she had money," she quips.
Behind the laughter, as you would expect, is pain, fear, vulnerability, insecurity, failure - and ego to try and balance it up. We see her being made up, being ridiculed, being adored and being herself. The only thing we don't see is Joan Rivers being plastically modified. She of the famous and public enthusiasm for anything to preserve the signs of youth, wouldn't allow us that last intrusion.
But it hardly matters (except for 75 year old women who want to see how she does it and if the pain is worth it); there are unexpectedly vulnerable private moments, including those that relate to her business. She is a mini industry, as she says, but it still hurts that NBC have never invited her back from the day she left the Johnny Carson Show, where she had become a part of the fittings over 20 years, to start her own show at the invitation of the Fox network. Carson never spoke to her ever again. And her show bombed. Ouch - and ouch for the rest of her life.
She cries sometimes and she laughs a lot, almost always in anger; her comedy is black and nasty and graphically rude. She is a highly regarded comic and loved by her fans; but she years to be taken seriously as an actress, writing and performing her own plays. She IS an actress, acting the role of a comic, she maintains. And she does it her way. She will continue as long as she can stand, and she'll do anything for money. She doesn't feel guilty about that at all.
When a man in the audience takes umbrage at a deafness joke because he has a deaf son, Rivers rips into him; she demolishes his objection and after the show she tells her entourage that she hopes he'll rethink his attitude to life. But she also worries that perhaps she was too hard on him. Her mother was deaf, she knows the pain. That's what comedy is there to mitigate.
If you want an insight into human nature, stand up comedy and stand up comedians are a great looking glass, as long as you're prepared for all that pain. All great comedy is cruel, and Joan Rivers does cruel really well. But by the time this film ends, we're wiser and smarter and better informed, not only about Joan but also about ourselves.
Published first in the Sun-Herald
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JOAN RIVERS: A PIECE OF WORK (MA15+)
CAST: Documentary featuring Joan Rivers, Phyllis Diller, Annie Duke, Kathy Griffin, Don Rickles, Melissa Rivers, Donald Trump
PRODUCER: Seth Keal, Anne Sundberg
DIRECTOR: Ricki Stern, Anne Sundberg
SCRIPT: Not credited
CINEMATOGRAPHER: Charles Miller
EDITOR: Penelope Falk
MUSIC: Paul Brill
PRODUCTION DESIGN: n/a
RUNNING TIME: 84 minutes
AUSTRALIAN DISTRIBUTOR: Madman
AUSTRALIAN RELEASE: Melbourne: September 30, 2010; Sydney, Hobart, Perth: October 7, 2010