Dear friends and readers,
Again I write hurriedly to recommend seeing a film lest it vanish before you get there. Yesterday Izzy braved the intense (and it was burning, burning hot in that car), to see Joan Rivers: A piece of work. The directors and producers are the same man and woman: Ricky Stern, Anne Sundberg, perhaps her friends?, for it’s self-evidently all Joan’s and projects her unqualifiedly as far as she dares. In the theater I was in (an art cinema which does have a Jewish customer base) there were few there, while bunches of people were at Winter’s bone, Please Give. Not Merchant-Ivory-Jhabvala’s City of your Final Destination which has alas disappeared.
The issues she brings up resonate so directly and personally with American middle class life — and being a woman, and I found myself connecting personally. Why? Partly because I’m so different from her but am aware her norms are intense versions of US ideals I can’t eradicate from my soul either — though unlike her I try.
More: how she ended the film by talking of her intense emotional pain over the loss of her long-time friend, associated, employee, Billie. She has been forced to estrange herself from him. And he and she go way back: there is no one else who remembers with her what she remembers. He was there when her husband killed himself. He was there when this or that funny or mad or miserable thing happened. She could talk with him and they’d laugh and love and cry for much of her adult life: he seems to have been her Man Friday. We see him in the film a lot. She needed him to be there for her when she was in trouble; he did all sorts of stuff for her. The problem was he’d disappear now and again, sometimes just when she needed him most. This began to happen all the time. Empty chair. So the relationship is now severed. I was so moved because I am now estranged from someone where the emotional pain of it just gets worse. I can do nothing about it because this person doesn’t want me; she needles, berates, insults, and has contempt for me. So I must stay away. And yes there are these rooted memories. I came close to crying as Rivers talked about this perhaps common experience.
So what is so good about this movie? Its feel of burning honesty. She keeps her soul alive by getting on that stage and doing her thing, by activating her anger, sublimating it and reaching others where they live. And the way she confronts our cultural hypocrisies and defies them and in her act mocks our false norms.
The subtitle refers to the them that she’s a perpetual piece of work in progress. Performing from the time she gets up. Celebrity, what is it, how do you make, keep it up, what is its price. Part of the discourse of this documentary. There’s a commencement speech by Meryl Streep worth listening to this about just this. Towards the end of Streep’s speech she says:
“Being celebrity has taught her to hide but being an actor has opened her soul.”
We see this in this Joan Rivers film.
We open on sharp close ups of her face. Old. She’s putting on make-up. Dressing slowly. She does this early each and every day. She getting old you see, 75, and no one wants an old woman. Her history of plastic surgery, her use of make-up and her advocating these are brought up front and central. She’s a woman of burning ambition at 75 keeping her soul alive — she tells honestly about her life through reminiscences: I didn’t know Carson blackballed her utterly from NBC when she tried to lead a night show of her own (first woman to try and none since). He hung up when she called to tell him about this opportunity and never spoke to her again. For years she couldn’t get on NBC:
I didn’t know her husband killed himself shortly after that:
and how ugly and cruel are these shows like Celebrity something-or-other (there is no rationale for watching such a show, or supporting it because however you describe your emotions you will be feeding off of its basis in viscerally public mortification). The “roasts” on comedy central were brutal to her.
Her daughter, Melissa, is in “the business” too and we see the tensions between them. Her daughter was one of those cruelly humiliated on this Celebrity show:
Joan Rivers lives high and luxuriously and this takes money. She calls her home (very fancy) a kind of Marie Antoinette place, evoking her understanding of how envy and resentment towards a woman who flaunts her riches easily rises. At the same time she has never managed to achieve the status of any of the men nor the kind of teams they have. We see how she goes anywhere — including a devastating gig in Wisconsin to a fundamentalist (Republican) type audience.
Her raw comedy is still daring for a woman and she is admonished on HBO for her use of “fuck” — which I loved her for ignoring. The men utter it all the time.
She manages to get 17 people on thanksgiving and gets in a big table. She has her few close relatives, close staff and brings in people in her building who she knows have nowhere to go and some street people she passes regularly. Before that she goes round giving out meals on wheels. She supports the children of her staff members by sending them to the best private schools.
Although the discourse is not explicitly as this is a woman’s life in the comedy business and outlook on life itself, that’s what is at its core. She’s aware of this and how as a woman she’s been in the paradoxical position of suffering from the very things she advocates.
It’s very hard to write and deliver comedy. She says she’s an actress, a serious one acting out a comic. Years ago in NYC she tried to make it in a play she wrote and produced. She was fiercely made fun of. Merciless. She actually moved out of NY for a time. We see her try again; she is so much older than everyone else in the crew. They do well in front of audience at Edinburgh and take it to London. The audience gives a standing ovation, but the critics are lukewarm and the words are all about their being put off by her being a woman, old, her self-centeredness, and yes her looks. How dare she think her personal life of such interest. So she does not take it to NY. Once being so mocked and castigated there was enough.
I collapsed in helpless laughter at a couple of the routines, especially the one about anal intercourse. She advises it in her routine. No pregnancy and you can do lots of other things at the same time. Read, do the bills …
Alas no one (or only a couple and in different places) in the theater laughed the way I did at these routines.
Another of the five women’s films women’s enews recomended at the opening of summer this year. Thus far I’ve managed 4 superlative ones (if you add in Merchant-Ivory-Jhabvala): Winter’s Bone, Please Give, City of Your Final Destination, and now this Joan Rivers documentary.