As celebrity documentaries go, the 2010 “biodoc,” Joan Rivers: A Piece of Work, available for instant viewing on Netflix, is a mixed bag. It is neither reverential to the point of hagiography, nor is it a muckraking expose. What it is, is a measured look at a year in the life of a comedienne who has grown old in a world that belongs to the young, an elder stateswoman who refuses to “rust unburnished.” It may be too late to seek a newer world, but at age seventy five (her age when the film was being shot) it is much too early to give up on the old one.
The Joan Rivers portrayed in the documentary directed by Ricki Stern and Annie Sundberg is a driven woman. Her career is her life. There isn’t anything she is unwilling to do to keep that career alive because to keep that career alive is to keep herself alive. She will sell jewelry on the shopping channel. She will trot off to Edinburgh and London to play herself in a play she’s written about her life. She will do radio interviews in the mornings, book signings in afternoons, and play casinos in the sticks and ratty comedy clubs in the evenings—and she will complain if her date book has blank pages. She will transform what should have been her wizened face into a youthful mask, knowing full well she is likely to become the go to face lift joke of every comedian du jour, but knowing just as well that the smooth face of youth is key to keeping her cherished career alive. Although, surprisingly, she does allow herself to be filmed sans makeup at the opening of the documentary, of course it is only in extreme close up of individual features, lips, an eye, but still without the make-up, not a pretty sight. The public eye has little interest in seeing wrinkled elders.
If one can question her priorities, it is difficult to question her energy as she trots around from limo to puddle jumper, from studio to rehearsal hall. And on stage she still has that energy in spades. In clips from her performances, she proves herself as raunchy and feisty as ever she was as a young woman, if not more so. After all, there is so much more you can get away with on stage today than there was back when she was making a name for herself on Johnny Carson’s Tonight Show. So whether she is blowing her top and cursing at a heckler or making jokes about anal sex, she is clearly not going gentle anywhere, let alone into that good night.
While not a biographical study, the film does pay some cursory attention to her life and earlier career. There is some attention to her marriage and the suicide of her husband Edgar after the fiasco of her late night show on the Fox network. There is her account of Johnny Carson’s bitter reaction to her becoming his competitor. Her daughter and her grandson make an appearance, but as Joan says at one point, no one wants to hear about your cute grandchildren. There are clips from past TV appearances, and from the film she and Melissa made after the death of Edgar. All of this provides some context for the documentary’s central concern, Joan Rivers today.
Interestingly, what seemed to have started as something of a down year for the star, her date book showed a lot of white (you need sunglasses to look at it, she quips), the reviews for her play in London are mediocre to poor, her club dates are dwindling, turns full circle with her appearance on The Celebrity Apprentice and a roast on Comedy Central. Both of which she has qualms about: she worries about lasting longer on the Apprentice than daughter Melissa who is also on the show. She worries about plastic surgery jokes on the roast. And of course, there are the plastic surgery jokes, and she not only lasts longer than Melissa, she lasts longer than all of the other contestants. There may well be a metaphor at work here.
As she says over and over again, she doesn’t want to hear all these young comediennes talk about how she prepared the way for them. She is not interested in being the grand old dame. She is still preparing the way in a sense, only now she is preparing the way for wrinkled elders with Zimmer frames and canes. The film ends with her opening for a show in a four thousand seat casino theater for octogenarian comedian, Don Rickles. The implication is clear: you can’t keep the old girl down.