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Movie Review: Joan Rivers: A Piece of Work

By Philip Martin

This article was published July 23, 2010 at 3:26 a.m.

— Those of us of a certain age might remember when Joan Rivers was actually something other than the celebrity celebrity-stalker she appears to play on television. Now, as she snarkily prowls the red carpets - with her daughter Melissa in tow - it’s easy to think of her like one of those peculiar Hollywood institutions like the Golden Globes, which people court but don’t genuinely respect.

Well, you may not come away from Ricki Stern and Annie Sundberg’s (blisteringly funny) chronicle of a year in the life of the comedian actually liking Joan Rivers, much less understanding her, but by gosh this movie is going to force you to respect her. The movie was filmed when Rivers was 75 years old (before her latest “comeback” on the Donald Trumpreality show The Apprentice), and the most impressive thing about her is her sheer stamina and energy.

Rivers is an old-school assault comic, like Don Rickles but without Rickles’ especial pathos (which clues us all in that the comic is really a nice man after all). I’m not at all sure Joan Rivers is in any sense nice, although I’ll allow that she is possessed of a cer-tain animal instinct for pushing past whatever doubts fleetingly shade her mind. She is merciless to a fault, and she seems interested in her capacity for cruelty. She seems to understand that she needs attention more than love, and like all pathologically funny people she is willing to sacrifice all dignity and perhaps even her humanity for a laugh.

She was, the movie reminds us, Johnny Carson’s permanent guest host from the mid-1970s until 1986, when her mentor dropped her for accepting her own talk show on the thenfledgling Fox network. Carson, a father figure who had mentored Rivers for years, never spoke to her again.

Her show soon failed, and shortly after that, her husband and the show’s producer, Edgar Rosenberg, committed suicide. Soon Rivers, never an A-lister, was reduced to a punch line. She was the brassy failure who’d had more cosmetic surgeries than Michael Jackson.

But she kept working. And she keeps working to this day.

She needs an audience more than she needs audienceapproval, and if she can’t get a network gig she’ll work lounges and clubs. She writes books and flies around the country, bouncing from midlevel gigs in midlevel cities. She hawks her own line of jewelry on QVC, she’s brutal to herself and to any celebrity whose fame approaches or exceeds her own. Her only saving grace, the only thing that excuses her, is that she’s both viciously funny and patently pathetic.

It’s not clear if Joan Rivers has an interior life, that there is a self there beneath the surgical sculpting, but the possibility that there isn’t is suggested from the film’s opening sequence. At any rate, she doesn’t waste any psychic energy feeling sorry for herself. While it’s apparent she can be deeply wounded, there’s a sense that she’s almost eager for hurt that she can convert into material.

Rivers is a fascinating subject, but Stern and Sundberg, serious documentarians whose previous work includes the devastating The Devil Came on Horseback, about the atrocities in Darfur, wisely refrain from attempting to psychoanalyze her, or to draw any general conclusions about the emotional requirements of funny people. Instead they are content toobserve, in a cool but sympathetic way, how this particular dynamo hums.

MovieStyle, Pages 31 on 07/23/2010

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