Why are we here? For what reason do we exist? In Joan Rivers: A Piece of Work, the indefatigable lady clown provides the answer: to laugh! She laughs at everything, even if it’s vulgar and tasteless and funny as cancer. Nothing is off-limits, and God help the meekest audience member who offers even a mild complaint. Nobody else could, as reported in the press from Sundance, say “I would have laughed at Auschwitz” without getting stoned or accused of being a borderline mental-clinic outpatient. But Joan Rivers gets away with murder because she is just plain lovable in spite of everything, including herself. I like her. I always have.
This movie, co-directed by Ricki Stern and Annie Sundberg, is likable, too, because it forces you to see a complex, multi-faceted and courageous woman who will do anything at least once to get a laugh. I have a feeling people will take away one of two reactions. They will think of Joan as a dynamo, a human whirling dervish who never sleeps, and an object lesson in what to do to achieve success and stay running in place. Others will see the desperation to search for new ways to re-invent herself and breathe a sigh of relief, happy in their own skin. She’s 75 now, but she has never smelled the roses. I left this movie with the impression that if she ever sat down in an easy chair to read a book, she would implode.
A good documentary about a beloved celebrity should reveal the true nature of the subject and share something poignant the world doesn’t already know without jamming in a needle that draws enough blood to turn the fans away in disgust. Neither darkly compelling or crisis-riddled, this one has a rough time being either. No alcohol or drug addictions to overcome. No painful memories of years in rehab. No life-threatening illnesses to survive. It’s all about personality and Joan’s inimitable style, which fills every second of its 84 minutes.
You see the one-night stands in saloons and dumps no grandmother should be caught dead in (much less one who makes millions on QVC), the all-night flights to nowhere, the frustration when there’s an empty page in her date book, the terror of a phone that does not ring.
Nobody is a barrel of laughs all the time. She’s experienced it all, but I know this woman. Trust me when I tell you she’s suffered her share of blows, private moments of fear and panic, and real emotions nobody sees. Dismissed for life by Johnny Carson, who blackballed her from NBC, fired in front of millions by Fox, a husband who committed suicide—she’s been forced to pull herself out of debt and keep going.
And you see how she survives with a smile, how she keeps comedy fresh and laughs to stay in show business at the age when most female comics have retired, found a better life or died. She has a magnificent New York apartment where she rarely entertains, and a Connecticut house that belongs in Architectural Digest, where she never goes without an entourage because there’s no audience there.
She’s the Material Girl, with Medicare. I love her in spite of all that (or maybe because of it). But I wish A Piece of Work had included other aspects of Joan Rivers the camera doesn’t capture—philanthropist, humanitarian, care-giver for people in trouble, the first crusader on network television who fought the battle against AIDS and endorsed the use of condoms. That took courage, not punch lines.
Always looking for the next four-digit deal, her current plans are to sell everything and move to Los Angeles to live with her daughter, Melissa, and her 9-year-old camera-ready grandson, Cooper, the cutest kid since Margaret O’Brien and destined to someday be the kind of star who supports them both. I don’t believe a word of it. She’s a New York icon, and this is where the laughs are.
It makes me sad to hear her say, “When I am onstage is the only time I am truly happy.” But see A Piece of Work anyway. You don’t get winsomeness, innocence and cuddle-me charm. Nobody will ever tap her to play Doris Day. But you do get one unique dame with a love she doesn’t sell cheap, and a hidden heart bigger than her Botox budget.
Rex Reed is the film critic for the New York Observer.