Joan Rivers a name that would mean different things to different people.It could mean a legendary comedic icon who paved the way for female comedians, it could mean a nasty acid tongued mean spirited person who takes a jabs at others while she is dealing with her own insecurities, it could also be the poster-child of the plastic surgery industry. What Joan Rivers – a piece of work does is it throws open all the above mentioned pre-conceptions/misconceptions that people have about Joan and throws in a few more for good measure.
The documentary begins with Joan and her assistant Jocelyn sitting together to go over her schedule and you can see how upset she is with her almost blindingly blank bookings diary. She even makes a joke about needing sunglasses to look at the diary because the blank white dates are blinding to her. She also refers to her older diaries which during the peak of her career were chock-a-block full with appearances and shows. You see how she is willing to debase herself by doing things anyone with any self respect would turn down but she can’t afford to.
The documentary lets you in on her personal life, the over the top Marie Antoinette style mansion, the people she surrounds herself with her staff her manager Bill who is her only link to her glory days but also you feel the tension and the growing resentment as Joan repeatedly refers that Bill is never there when she’s in trouble but then again maybe he is the only friend she has left. You see her relationship with her daughter, at times over bearing and over protective and at times caring and understanding.
By means of old footage you are introduced to how Joan came to be The Joan Rivers. How she was got her break on Johnny Carson’s Tonight show and how with her increasing popularity and her wild ways she became a regular guest on the tonight show – a feat almost unimaginable for a female comedian. After that seminal moment which could very well have propelled her to unimaginable heights of stardom the circumstances transpired and she never seemed to have quite made it. The downward spiral hit rock bottom when her husband Edgar committed suicide and which drove Joan and Melissa apart. The scene where she talks about the movie she did with Melissa confronting the subject of her husband’s suicide and how it worked for her as a catharsis and brought the mother and daughter closer is particularly refreshing.
But this is not a out and out depressing or a self-pity documentary. That is just not how Joan does it. She takes the punches better than she lands them. The way she goes about carrying on because that is the only way she knows how to survive and her constant struggle to get back to the top of the game is inspiring to say the least. A Scene where she is doing her standup comedy and makes a pass about deaf children and someone in the audience gets agitated because he has a deaf child is particularly telling. She didn’t mean to cause any personal assault but if you attack her she will come back at you with everything she has got and boy she’s got a lot!
A career that has spanned more than four decades and is now dwindling, where she has become nothing more than a walking joke, leads her to the comedy central roast. She is disgusted by the idea that there will be comedians who will be making scathing remarks about her age and her numerous plastic surgeries but the fact that she has to do it for the money is what stood out for me. This scene and another in a car in London where her play hasn’t been that well received shows you that even the most acid tongued comedian has her weaknesses, her own insecurities and her own demons to battle.
As a documentary this could be one of the finest I have seen, there is no bias or pity to portray Joan as the martyr or the victim. There is no glorifying the past and lamenting the state of things as they are today but rather the struggle of a 75 year old woman who just wants to keep doing what makes her happy. At the end when you see she has fired her friend Bill and you see her break down you can see all the masks coming off – this is just an old woman who is alone and is very afraid of having lost her only link to her glory days or do you see talented and a hugely underappreciated actress ?
See this documentary for it is a piece of work, see it for its comedic moments see it for its unapologetic look at a star who is driven by vanity and the constant need to be in the limelight but more than anything else see it for a pioneer who broke through barriers and made a name for herself despite the circumstances and is still going strong to prolong her legacy. See it for Joan River who is not just a piece of work but a piece of art.