Warning: This post will likely contain adult themes, the names of body parts below the Mason-Dixon Line, and probably a word or two you wouldn’t say in church. Hello! — it’s about Joan Rivers, what did you expect?
Saw Joan Rivers: A Piece of Work last night with my friend Charlemagne. We saw it in Cobble Hill, or maybe it was Carroll Gardens (where is the line?) in a cozy little neighborhood theater on — what was that street called? Sesame? Seriously, the Court Street-Smith Street corridor is about as close to “idealized neighborhood NYC” as it’s possible to find anymore — pretty and walkable, but with a soupçon of filth. You know — a neighborhood you probably won’t be knifed in, but still, if you drop a candy bar on the sidewalk, don’t pick it up and eat it. It’s still New York.
As we had our dessert afterwards in the Chocolate Room next door, if a Muppet (presumably a raggedy one, possibly with a drug habit), just escaped from 123 Sesame Street, had wandered in and ambled over to our table asking for spare change, I wouldn’t have been surprised. But I digress.
So, Joan Rivers. To people in their 20s and maybe even 30s, “plastic surgery gone horribly wrong” is probably the first thing you think of, but to people a generation or so older — wow, what a groundbreaking woman, absolutely a performer, who would say or do anything to get a laugh, back when women didn’t do that sort of thing. Joan Rivers made abortion jokes 20 years before anyone — ANYONE female was willing to do it.
The movie is a loose, episodic chronicle of roughly a year in her life (the year apparently 2008), when her career was in a slump but she wasn’t yet ready to remove the crown she received from Phyllis Diller and hand it over to Kathy Griffin. (She still isn’t.) Along the way we see her massively overdecorated (but still endearing) apartment, a lot of her household staff, flashbacks to the 60s, 70s, and 80s, more of Melissa than I really needed, and plenty of performance clips, including an extended routine taped in a casino in Wisconsin in which she surgically disposed of a heckler. This woman may be 75, but DON’T GET IN HER WAY.
We see an extremely human portrait of a frightened, flawed person, aware of her mistakes, insecure despite her talents, devoted to her daughter. At one point she is sitting with the makeup artist and, almost as an aside, she says something like “nobody has ever said to me that I am beautiful” and I heard an audible intake of breath from the woman sitting behind me. Imagine what it must be like to never have heard another person call you beautiful!
I won’t spoil the movie by giving away all the details, but there are a couple of moments I particularly enjoyed. One is the scene where she barks a filthy Twitter posting to an assistant, who scribbles it on a notepad and scurries away. Another is having the camera come on her when she is on her hands and knees in (I think) her bathroom, writing herself cue cards on oaktag with a magic marker. The camera zooms in as she writes the words… well, one of them is a body part that starts with V, and the other is a gaseous product that starts with F, ask a fifth-grader — alluding to a joke she is kind enough to share with the class. And I loved the metal card file in her office, in which thousands of jokes are separately typed on index cards and filed away in little drawers with guide words on the front like “COOKING-DANZA, TONY.” Even now, when Joan is in New York or L.A. overnight, she schedules a club date, so she can try out new material. At 75! Would that we all had such drive.
I should say something about “Celebrity Apprentice,” which has figured in Joan’s latest comeback (it was her first appearance on NBC since Johnny Carson blackballed her 30 years ago), but I am so uninterested in talking about Donald Trump that all I’ll say is this: Joan Rivers is so fascinating that I was actually willing to sit through the 90 seconds of Trump footage they worked into this film.