Wednesday, January 12, 2011

Netflix-a-thon (#12) JOAN RIVERS: A PIECE OF WORK

Tonight I discovered, or just realized, a dirty little secret for myself: I found Joan Rivers incredibly, take-no-prisoners funny.  The documentary on her from this past year, A Piece of Work, follows her along as she just goes about her career, and it shows the ups and downs (frankly more ups than downs in the present tense if not in the past), but what's a revelation for me, one that I have in part from not growing up with Rivers' stand-up on TV, is that she is a filthy, awesomely no-holds-barred comic.  She's my favorite kind of comic, one that, ironically in the press, is derided by some as a "Borshbelt" or "Vegas" comic.  Bullshit.  If she can take apart sex, life, marriage, politics, and with an incisive thought process for absurdity and the outrageous, count me in. 

Does this mean the doc makes her come off totally wonderfully?  Not necessarily.  It's hard not to see her as what she is: a DIVA (in caps), living in a more than comfortable existence in Manhattan, and often complaining about how she doesn't get any work when very quickly it's shown that she takes whatever she can get.  By the end of the movie I didn't know if I especially liked her more than before (the stand-up aside), but I did understand her much better.  And it's hard not to respect someone who, celebrity or otherwise, will lay out the cards of his/her life on the table and what led up to the state they're in now.

There are many entertaining and sometimes tragic stories from her past: becoming Johnny Carson's darling guest host and then in a flash becoming his "competitor" (in his words) and being banished from NBC until her stint on Celebrity Apprentice; her very quick (four day) courtship with Edgar, her husband, and then his suicide in the 80's leaving her so distraught; and the basic troubles of trying to make it into the world of male-dominated stand-up comedy at a time when a woman who could be naturally funny (and on edge for that time) was a rarity.  And seeing Rivers as she goes from gig to gig, talking to the interviewer in her dressing room or getting her copious amounts of make-up, is a lot of fun and her candid sensibility fits right into a documentary form like Stern and Sundberg have here (they're work, by the way, is just fine if not too ambitious, a few nice skyline shots here, a good close-up of their subject there, a basic profile).

Sometimes a story will come up that I almost wish the filmmakers had explored a little more, such as the very odd TV-movie that Joan and her daughter Melissa acted in so soon after Edgar's suicide, playing themselves, going through the same motions they went through before.  It's a very idiosyncratic example of a meta-work that is kind of brushed over (maybe, like her play "Fun City", it didn't get good buzz by the critics), but it also speaks to something that is discussed a bit more in the movie, which is insecurity.  Maybe putting it all out in the open was what she needed, as with her plastic surgery which turned her into the "joke" of it after a while.  Or it was just a form of public therapy.  I would be curious to see the movie one day.  Maybe.

But the real meat and potatoes of the documentary, and why it's so consistently enjoyable, is showing someone at work and (sometimes) their process.  Sometimes we just see Rivers complaining a bit or trying to get something better for her current or upcoming gig, and that's fine if a little repetitive.  Other times the filmmakers just show her doing what she does with a degree of confidence that is staggering; watching her take on a heckler at one of her shows is such a delight, even if after it she feels bad for the heckler (deaf jokes, always a touchy thing I guess).  And then other times, paradoxically, she can be shy and still at 75 unsure of  her full talents.  Most revelatory is to discover that she thinks of herself more, or has more self-esteem issues, as an actress than a comic, or rather is one of those that sees her comic work as part of her acting.  It's all one in the same for a performer, and after forty some-odd years it doesn't get easier.  In fact for her, it gets harder.

That necklace has it's own necklace!
A part of me at seeing scenes like that in the film thinks "oh, please, whatever."  Then another part just goes, "no, that's about right, for any creative person, if anything more celebrity exacerbates insecurity and what attention comes through."  To be sure there is a slant in it being a documentary that is all about her and practically all praise-worthy (and one that, for some, doesn't go that much into the extensive plastic surgery she's had, only with the opening shots with extreme close-ups as if to possibly say 'let's get it out of the way and move on with Rivers).  A Piece of Work refers to her, and exemplifies her, as an artist who like Rickles or George Burns or Phyllis Diller won't stop and will keep going, hot or not, and also in the figurative way.  

Oh, Joan, you old Jewish broad you.  If she was my grandmother it'd be... about the same as now.  Only with more anal sex jokes.  

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