Last night, I attended a screening of Joan Rivers: A Piece Of Work—a brilliant documentary about the comedian's life and work (and how the two aren't mutually exclusive)—followed by a Q&A with Joan and the filmmakers.
The film opens with an extreme closeup of Joan's face, sans makeup. The rawness of every pore, every age spot, and every wrinkle (evidently it's impossible to Botox them away completely) sets the tone of the story that's about to be told: To show aspects of the woman—famous for how she's crafted her appearance—that we've never seen before. As Joan is fretting over the empty slots in her datebook, it's immediately apparent that she's a workaholic. Fear, she says, is an empty datebook. "It means nobody wants me."
Part of her resolve to never retire has to do with her lifestyle. She lives opulently, in her grand Manhattan apartment, with gilded walls and marble office phones. ("This is how Marie Antoinette would've lived if she had money.") But aside from her own preference of luxury, she also financially supports a number of friends and family members, as well as sending her employees' children to private school.
The documentary begins just before Joan began filming Celebrity Apprentice, and she was experiencing a slump in her career. The desperation to make a comeback was thick in the air. As her longtime manager and friend puts it, "Right now, [the public] see[s] her as a plastic surgery freak whose time is up." Irrelevance, it would seem, is one of Joan's pet peeves. "When female comedians say, 'You opened doors for me,' I wanna say, 'Fuck you! I'm still opening doors for you."
Through stock footage, we see just how the racy comedian opened those doors, telling jokes in the '60s about abortions and promiscuity, subjects that by today standards are banal, but were sort of earth-shattering then. She recalls that her manager at the time told her that women shouldn't be talking about that stuff. She completely ignored his advice, saying that this was exactly the kind of stuff that women should be talking about.
She's constantly writing new material. She has rows of filing cabinets, akin to a Dewey Decimal system, where she houses her jokes, with labels like, "Melissa's dates," "My sex life," and "Tony Danza."
Her statement of, "My life is just jokes," is somewhat ironic, because she's had a lot of hardships, one of them being the suicide of her husband Edgar, who left her in debt, not to mention angry—at how he quit on life and on her and their daughter Melissa. But anger, she says, fuels her work. "If I didn't have the anger, I wouldn't have the comedy."
Also ironic is how sensitive she is (she has many emotional moments, where she breaks down and cries), knowing that her calling card, as a performer, is her insensitivity. At one point in the film, during a stand-up routine in Wisconsin, she makes a joke about how Helen Keller would be a great daughter, because she would never say anything. A man in the audience becomes outraged and yells out, "That's not funny! It's not funny if you have a deaf son!" Joan fires back, summing up not only her act, but her view on life:
Let me tell you what comedy is about, you stupid son of a bitch! I had a deaf mother. I also fucked a guy for three years who had one leg! He lost it in France in WWII, and I think it's terrible, because he should go back and get it because that's littering! Comedy is a way for us to deal with things!
By the end of the film, she'd won Celebrity Apprentice, had her show, How'd You Get So Rich?, picked up by TV Land, and a Roast on Comedy Central. "I'm back," she says, "In spite of being a woman and in spite of being 75." And it becomes clear that the life of this funny woman—who sadly says she's never once been called beautiful by a man—is quite stunning.
After the film, as part of the TriBeCa Film Festival, Rex Reed hosted a Q&A panel with Joan and directors Ricki Stern and Annie Sundberg. Joan addressed her ability to find comedy in tragedy, and her resolve to never feel bad for herself.
Later, Rex asked her how female comics remain aggressive and stay feminine at the same time, and how she deals with hurting people's feelings with her act.