LAST NIGHT, WALLOWING in my grief over the death of comedienne Joan Rivers, I fired up my Netflix and watched an acclaimed documentary about her. “Joan Rivers: A Piece of Work” was made in 2010 by people I never heard of and likely you haven’t either so I won’t bother to name them here. When you watch the movie, which you should, you’ll find out.
Several things are amazing about this film. First and foremost, the photography is incredible, with a sharpness and eye for detail that puts you right in the middle of things. Whether it’s backstage with Joan and her pre-show jitters, in her limo whizzing through traffic, or hanging out in her ridiculously grandiose, eye-poppingly decorated enormous penthouse apartment, you’re there. And Manhattan never looked better, topping even Woody Allen’s customary fairy-tale take on the the worlds’ greatest city. Here it’s gritty, throbbing and yet appealing; you want to be there.
As for Joan herself–who knew she was so nuts? I loved the woman dearly and was a huge fan of her stand-up comedy, feeling a kinship to her for several reasons. She, too, was born in Brooklyn, a Jewish Gemini who said whatever the heck she wanted without fear of reprisals. The difference between us, besides more than a dozen years, was that she craved fame and I would rather die than have my name in lights, or anywhere actually, other than on a check made out to me. But Joan needed the spotlight, the attention and the constant adoration so much that she seemingly gave up all normal life. At 75, her age in the film, she schleps all over the country, flying to nowhere towns in the middle of winter, catching a red-eye here and there to spin her same shtick over and over at tiny nightclubs and huge 4,000-seat theaters, pitching stage productions, hoping for a TV commercial, in fact, hoping for anything at all.
She was in it for the gold and the glory, but mostly because she had no choice. She was addicted to fame, that much is clear. As she said, “I’m a performer. That’s what I am. It’s my life.” And what a life she led! It looked horrible to me, as it surely would to many people, but Joan seemed to be happy as long as her appointment book was full. The one moment of normalcy was during a scene where she and her young grandson were cuddled together in the back seat of her limo, holding hands and making small talk. That was nice. Other than that her days seemed like a living Hell of never-ending makeup sessions, nudgy meetings with her agent, business manager or assistant and frustrated phone calls seeking a gig from potential employers, all punctuated by a few unpleasant moments with her only child Melissa, herself a piece of work and starting down that bizarre road paved with plastic surgery her mother had pioneered.
The movie is fascinating and incredibly watchable, with only one cautionary note: It will cure anyone of their aspirations of a career in comedy. As Melissa says, having grown up mired in her mother’s career, “All comics are damaged somehow.” This movie is an extreme closeup of that truth. I’m still sad that Rivers died in such a horrendous and unexpected way, but after seeing this film I am less sad. Maybe she truly is in a better place now.
MyLittleBird contributor Andrea Rouda blogs at “Call Me Madcap.”