"It is strange to be known so universally and yet to be so lonely." Albert Einstein.
I am not a fan of Joan Rivers. I don’t know anyone who is. I’ve never found her funny; I’ve found her only mean and annoying. However, after seeing the 2010 documentary A Piece of Work, I have mad respect for her.
Cameras followed Rivers for a year, but this is no Kardashian “reality.” This is actually real. In fact, I don’t recall ever seeing a celebrity so raw, intimate, and stripped down. The opening scene epitomizes this. The credits roll over her naked face as she gets made up and becomes Joan Rivers. What egotistical image-obsessed Hollywood actress would allow her bare skin seen so up close on the big screen let alone a 75-year-old (at the time) infamous for her nipping and tucking?
Rivers’ age is an important theme running through this film. She says of age, “It’s the one mountain you can’t overcome.” And I learned how much she has overcome.
I don’t think I understood just how much of a trailblazer she was in the 60s. I was mostly aware of her as Johnny Carson’s frequent guest and permanent sub for the Tonight Show; her subsequent late night show on Fox, which put her in direct competition with her friend and mentor; the show’s quick cancellation followed almost immediately by her husband Edgar’s suicide. I’d say those are a hell of a lot of mountains to overcome.
A Piece of Work was filmed during the time when Rivers was cast on—and won--Celebrity Apprentice. This was a huge success for her because she’d been blacklisted from appearing on NBC since pissing off Carson. In fact, he never spoke to her again. After 20 years of whatever-Hollywood-friendship-thing they had. It made me realize what a huge deal it was when she appeared on the Tonight Show’s inaugural episode with Jimmy Fallon as host. She was one of the celebrities who laid down $100 in the “lost a bet Jimmy would ever host the Tonight Show” gag. By the way, Leno had never invited her on during his reign of the Tonight Show, so he confirms that douchy status we all suspected.
I also realized how hard she works. I mean, wow! She gives “workaholic” a whole new meaning. She will do anything, play anywhere, hock any product. She is immune to humiliation. She’s not living if she’s not working. Others call her focus to succeed “chronic,” “maniacal,” “fanatic.” One interviewee says, “Joan will turn nothing down. She hears the clock ticking every minute of every hour of every day.”
Among the jobs she’ll take is doing stand-up in some bum-f#%@ town in the Midwest and I’ve never seen Rivers this way. She’s filthy, enraged (“Anger fuels the comedy”), and actually funny. I was really surprised to laugh a few times during this film. She’s also incredibly quick. She destroys a heckler. And I mean destroys. She’s “like a trapeze artist” (her words) keeping the audience on her side and laughing when they’re scared and not sure if they should. And, equally surprising, she feels sorry for the heckler after the show. My goodness, Joan Rivers has a heart! Who knew?
Rivers’ heart is all over this thing. She supports several friends and family members financially; she’s put several people through school (including one of my co-workers friends); she recounts her time with Carson so fondly; she has a sweet relationship with her grandson; she loves her daughter, Melissa.
Okay, Melissa. That’s a whole thing. First of all, yikes. Imagine Joan Rivers is your mother. Second, she grew up thinking of “the business” as “her sister.” Her sister. Then they did that Lifetime mother/daughter cheesy-ass movie of the week about surviving Edgar’s suicide. I mean, isn’t that how we all grieve? By making a made-for-Lifetime movie? Starring ourselves? Rivers says doing the movie “totally mended the relationship.” Yeah, just wrap your head around that for a minute.
Then there’s the bit about Melissa joining Joan on Celebrity Apprentice. Those dynamics are what keep therapists and pharmaceutical companies in business. Rivers worries that it will be traumatic if Melissa is voted off first. She claims she’ll “hold back” to help Melissa shine and succeed, but Melissa knows her mother is in denial: “She can’t hold back.”
In a way, it’s downright maternal of Rivers to want to protect Melissa from the cruelty of show business; on the other hand, she sends a not-so-subtle message to Melissa that she doesn’t have what it takes to succeed in Hollywood: she is “supportive but not encouraging.” Rivers is a woman obsessed who claims to have no choice but to be in the business. But if Melissa doesn’t stand on a red carpet with her mother—and her “sister”—making snarky comments about what the stars are wearing, how else will she get to spend time with her?
The most surprising thing I learned about Rivers is that she thinks of herself as an actress. “My career is an actress’s career and I play a comedian.” Huh? Hmm. I thought that was nuts until I saw the passion and emotion with which she speaks of her acting. She breaks down in tears when she says, “My acting is my one sacred thing in my life.” Her vulnerability is real.
She wrote and starred in a one-woman show that was a huge success at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival, but as one friend says, “There is nothing she can do that will be industry-embraced.” That is proven when she considers bringing the show to New York. So terrified of bad reviews, she decides to can it. Yet, she continues to knock, scratch, and force her way into a club that will never accept her. She’s the master of just sticking in there. Regarding George Burns, Phyllis Diller, and Don Rickles, she wants to be the last one standing. “I’d like to beat them all…and I think I will.”
I think she will, too. She can’t not be “on.” She jokes with doormen, cab drivers, fellow voters when she goes to the polls. Her life is a comedy routine. Just as the opening scene epitomizes the intimacy that Rivers is willing to share, the last line of the film epitomizes her entire life and is chilling to consider:
“The only time I’m truly happy is when I’m on a stage. I’m a performer. That’s my life. That’s what I am. That’s…it.”