An older woman I know, a lifelong feminist, is very fond of the famous quote about Fred Astaire: "Sure he was great, but don't forget Ginger Rogers did everything he did backwards . . . and in high heels!" On the surface, this quip looks like a rallying cry for women trying to succeed in male-dominated industries: it suggests that although the bar may be set higher for a woman, it's possible for her to excel without sacrificing her femininity, or even changing her shoes. Yet, to me, there's something troubling about the image this sentence presents, something a little grotesque. It seems to me that a career spent dancing backwards is a career fundamentally out of one's own control.
Let me back up a little: last night, I saw the documentary Joan Rivers: A Piece of Work, and if you go to the theater where I watched it, you will probably find fragments of my broken heart scattered amid the popcorn kernels and Skittles on the floor. It isn't a perfect film -- more on that in a bit -- but it's an undeniably powerful one, as jaw-dropping, maudlin, hilarious, tacky, tragic, merciless, and completely badass as its protagonist.
Before seeing this movie, I remembered Joan Rivers only vaguely, as the skeletal creature who prowled red carpets during the awards seasons of my youth like a vulture searching for roadkill along a desert expressway. To be honest, I hadn't thought about her for years. Back when I was a teenager, I probably would have added that she looked like she'd had a bunch of plastic surgery, a practice of which I vaguely disapproved; her naked hostility also seemed to make celebrities uncomfortable, which was odd, considering that it was her job to chat them up. But to me, Joan Rivers -- along with People magazine, Anna Nicole Smith, VH1, and the poetry of Suzanne Somers -- was not a person, but a single tiny cog in the Great Mass Media Dream Machine, a device as annoying but as essentially harmless as whatever made all those bubbles on the Lawrence Welk show. I saw no reason to care. I got my information from the New Yorker.
Dear Joan Rivers: I'm sorry for being a pretentious asshole. I've learned my lesson now.
Joan Rivers: A Piece of Work follows a year in the life of this comedian/actress, who during shooting celebrates (although that's hardly the right word) her seventy-fifth birthday. In terms of flat-out bizarreness, the Joan Rivers of this film is up there with the R. Crumb of Terry Zwigoff's unforgettable documentary. She lives in a townhouse that she describes as "how Marie Antoinette would have lived if she had money"; it's one part Versailles, two parts the Bellagio Hotel. In a heartfelt Thanksgiving toast, she says she thanks God every time she steps into a limousine. She asks if a joke where she refers to stylish first lady Michelle Obama as "Blackie O" would be in bad taste. On hold with a network exec for less than ten seconds, she has time to mutter, "Would've gotten through faster if I were Kathy Griffin." With no visible irony, she explains how making a TV movie about her husband's suicide helped her and her daughter work through their grief. She snarls at her Pekingese, "It's bacon, you idiot," as he reluctantly accepts a treat. On more than one occasion, she refers to herself as "the Queen."
And then, of course, there's her face -- a face that was disturbing in 1996 but now brings to mind Laura Dern's distorted clown visage at the end of Inland Empire. (I know what Plinkett would ask her.) Joan Rivers may have started out trying to look young, but at this point, it's almost like she's just trying to get a rise out of people. More than almost: her face is an accusation, acid tossed in the eyes of the male gaze. In one scene, she shows up to a play rehearsal so bloated with collagen her speech is affected. She talks about how terrifying it is to catch a glimpse of herself without makeup. And in perhaps the most shattering sequence of a film that's filled with them, she sits in a chair at her Comedy Central Roast as comedian after comedian razzes her for the surgeries, that face (and the smile on it) an impenetrable shield against whatever's going on within.
All of these things make Rivers a fascinating character, but what captivated me, what bound everything together, was her inextinguishable rage. Joan Rivers is the human equivalent of Centralia, PA, where a fire burned underground for 40+ years. Several times in the film, Rivers makes a point of saying she's willing to do anything, anything, for her audience, sometimes joking but mostly not. She says she'll knock out her teeth for a denture commercial, that she'll wear a diaper. And in fact she does agree to some equally far out things. She competes with her own daughter on a reality TV show, she allows herself to be subject to the aforementioned roast, she performs stand-up in a podunk Wisconsin casino, where she claims the slot machines dispense not coins but raw fish. But the two things that ultimately define Joan Rivers are the two things she refuses to do: she refuses to desexualize herself, and she refuses to go away. "There will be claw marks down that red carpet before they take it from her," says her longtime manager, and he's right.
What is it about Joan Rivers that's so unsettling, that even now, in this era of Sarah Silverman and Lady Gaga, makes us squirm? Some people might say that it's her obvious insecurity -- her desperation, her need. This is a woman who tells the camera that no man has ever called her beautiful; during a radio interview about plastic surgery, another woman asks her, "But don't you want to be loved for your intelligence, your sense of humor?" and Rivers replies, "I just want to be loved." In the documentary, Rivers reveals that she sends the children of her friends to private school -- "I'm a small industry," she says, signing a stack of checks -- and her reactions to fans, even awkward ones, are uncharacteristically warm. She is the empress of a dying world. I think it's tough to watch this movie without seeing hints of Sunset Boulevard. Like Gloria Swanson's character, Joan Rivers is forever plotting an unlikely comeback, vamping for the camera with her monster movie face, and reveling in long-ago glories ("Johnny Carson said to me, 'You're going to be a big star'").
Yet what I think is most shocking here is that, unlike Swanson's character, Joan Rivers is in on the joke. She knows exactly how she fits into the comedy food chain. One hilarious moment comes when she's going through a line-up of comedians she'll be performing with, sizing up each as competition ("Bill Mahr, brilliant. Jon Stewart, very smart. Ben Stiller, eh."). She's realistic, a businesswoman to a fault. When she finally wins on Celebrity Apprentice, she bitchily dismisses it ("It's not an Academy Award"), and after a performance of her play in London, she's unable to celebrate or even relax until she sees the reviews (they're not good). Sure, she sells jewelry on QVC and wears sequins, but with her razor-sharp intelligence, her self-awareness, Joan Rivers defies our ability to hold her at a distance. She is a funhouse mirror of our celebrity-obsessed culture, and like a mirror, she forces us to see ourselves in her. And that identification is the thing that makes Rivers now, if anything, even edgier than she was at the beginning of her career. If a comedian like Patton Oswalt is able to look at pop culture as if at an alien civilization, Joan Rivers is that alien. And she's asking, "Can we talk?"
I loved this movie; at times I found it absolutely devastating. Little scenes, as when Rivers and her grandson share a tender moment in her limousine ("I love your hands," she tells him), or when she lays bare her fears of failure in the wake of her play's flop, made me feel as though I was seeing her from the inside out. That said, there's a lot that's glossed over here. We don't get anyone else's side of the story re: the NBC debacle that tore a rift between Rivers and her then-mentor Johnny Carson, for example, and I get the sense that there may be others in the industry who would also cast her in a less-than-rosy light. But I don't think this film needs to cross-examine its subject a la The Fog of War to reveal some essential truths about her character. If Rivers has spent her entire career dancing backwards in heels, it's hardly surprising that she's stepped on a few toes.