Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art

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PostPosted: Fri Jun 25, 2010 8:36 pm 
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The queen of shock-shtick stand-up poses for a closeup

Joan Rivers, the American comedienne whose seventy-fifth year is chronicled in this documentary by Ricki Stern and Anne Sundberg, is indeed a piece of work -- one of a kind, and a real handful. Like many of the great comics of modern times, Richard Pryor, Lenny Bruce, Mort Sahl, Phyllis Diller, Moms Mabley, for example, her humor is dark and rude and spins on the edge of outrage, generates its personal energy through abuse, and sticks firmly in the realm of bad taste, shocking her audience into laughter. She's giddily cruel. For her, AIDS is funny, 9/11 is funny, having a blind child is funny; before it was legal, abortion was funny. Brutality is a kind of courage in her.

She hates. She has a few likes. She likes anal sex (in her routine anyway) -- because "you can do other things -- You can click on e-mail! You can read a magazine!" This is the liberating laughter of thumbing your nose at all propriety, all seriousness. There is not the political analysis of Sahl and Bruce, the acute look at race and class of Pryor -- none of that. This is just an outrageous person, someone who is not nice. And because she is not nice, she can say things we wouldn't dare to say, and it cracks us up: subconsciously we were wishing somebody'd say them. There's a hysterical, camp quality about Joan Rivers' outrageousness, something naughty and, yes, feminine.

Why does Joan Rivers say she was always an actress? She has one role: Joan Rivers. During this year, she put on a play at the Edinburgh Festival and then in London. It's essentially a monologue about herself. It seemed to go well but the reviews were not good and so it didn't come to Broadway. She says then that she is first and foremost an actress. She doesn't care what you say about her as a comedienne, but if you criticize her acting you deeply wound her. Much the way R.J. Cutler examined Anna Wintour during the run-up to Vogue's 2007 September issue, Ricki Stern and Anne Sundberg tracked comedienne Rivers -- and that's what she is -- this documentary is full of laughs -- through this seventy-fifth year, a time of struggling to be working, working at anything, Vegas, an Indian casino in northern Wisconsin, book signings, hoping to be "hot" again. Rivers is a workaholic, terminally insecure, and possessed of fiendish energy. Are any comics happy with who they are? This is a question the film raises.

When she first appeared on his show and exhibited her liberating (and sophisticated) nastiness, her smarts, and her exquisite comic timing on national TV for millions, Johnny Carson told Joan Rivers she'd be a big star, and she was never better than when she guest hosted the Carson "Tonight" show. When eventually she got her own night show on Fox as a result of all this success, however, Carson took this as a betrayal and never spoke to her again; he saw to it that she was barred from NBC and she lost her confidence.

Rivers should be retired -- or should she? Don Rickles is still going strong at eighty-eight (and she opens for him in Vegas). Kathy Griffin, a younger comedienne, says Joan Rivers made her career possible: she was a trailblazer. But to Joan's way of thinking, she has never peaked; she is; there's no was. Please. Though she's seventy-five, she's still waiting for that big break. She seems to be struggling; she jokes about wearing sunglasses to look at an appointment book that's all white. She claims she'd pull her teeth out to do a denture cream ad -- anything to get work.

Yet however less-than-number-one Joan may be now, she still somehow glitters. Her joke-level plastic surgery doesn't mean she doesn't look very good (she works hard enough at it), and her clothes and jewelry are shimmering and elegant -- with a Jersey Jewish girl's excess raised to celebrity level. Her New York apartment, by her own admission is "grand," with huge rooms decorated with Louis XIV furniture ("amazingly vulgar," one reviewer called it), and she has traveled only in limousines for decades. She takes a job that will pay $150,000 in three days because "I need money." But she has a fleet of assistants and servants and she writes a lot of checks. She gives Thanksgiving dinners at her place for fifty people, and she says that if anyone works for her, she sends their kids to private school.

Then there is her own husband Edgar Rosenberg, who was "not as strong" as she was and committed suicide during the bad time, in 1987, and her own daughter Melissa, who is in show biz herself and competes with her on Donald Trump's "Celebrity Apprentice" -- which Joan wins. Melissa and Joan earlier starred in a third rate TV movie that dramatized Edgar's death. Joan says this had a healing effect for them. (Breathtaking bad taste, and lack of boundaries.) There is Bobbie, her manager for three decades, whom she lets go during this year because whenever the going gets rough, he can't be found, and everybody's had enough of that. But basically all this is only about Joan, whose shtick is to talk about herself, so she does, and whether or not we get deep insight into the private person (we don't) we get a strong portrait of a comic persona.

Stern and Sundberg follow Joan Rivers around wherever she goes, with all the slice-of-life vividness and superficiality of such a method. There is no depth of analysis here, nor are any of her routines allowed to run through. This is like a movie about a great pianist that never allows him or her to be shown playing more than a few bars. And in the brief shots of her at work in front of an audience, she is breathtakingly outrageous and mean -- and quite hilarious. Stern and Sundberg have done serious political documentaries before this, and they treat Joan Rivers with neutrality, a method that, as far as it goes, works. She can be as maudlin and self-pitying as she can be vicious, but not too much, not here anyway. We're spared that.

Joan Rivers: A Piece of Work opened in NYC June 11 after successes at the Sundance, Tribeca, and San Francisco film festivals with her on hand to feel the love. It opened in the Bay Area June 25, and it will continue to be released for some time, city by city.

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