The opening shots of the new documentary about the life and career of Joan Rivers are jarring. Extreme close ups on her face as makeup is being applied reveal an unrecognizable face, despite being one of the most recognizable in the world. The skin is cracked, wrinkled and red, nothing like the smooth and plastic-y face we know so well. Immediately we know that this movie is going to show us a side of the comedian that may be uncomfortable, but we will not be able to look away. Joan Rivers is often dismissed as a caustic bitch, but we forget what a pioneer she was and we know little about her personal life. The opening shots remind us that this is a flawed woman and the movie will show her to us blemishes and all, though I think that the movie gets cautious and fails to explore some areas that are clearly painful for her.
What we learn before anything else is that Joan Rivers is a workaholic. Early in the movie, Rivers says she will show us what fear looks like and she cracks open an empty date planner. Square after square is clean and glaringly white. She tells us that if her book looked like this it would mean everything she did in her life meant nothing and everyone had forgotten her. At 75 Joan Rivers doesn’t just continue to work, she is obsessed with working. It isn’t that she loves it or that she needs the money: work is the measure by which she defines herself. It is a part of her being and retirement is a concept so foreign to her she would rather play in a club in the Bronx at 4:30 in the afternoon or do adult diaper commercials than fade away. Asking her to stop working would be like asking her to stop breathing.
Directors Ricki Stern and Anne Sundberg followed Rivers for a year, catching some of her highs and lows. They trailed her to glitzy events like a Lincoln Center tribute to George Carlin and to the less than glamorous like a show at an Indian casino in northern Wisconsin. In the process we come to know a deeply insecure woman struggling to maintain her relevance in a business that wrote her off long ago. She refuses to let people call her an icon or tell her she opened doors. “I’m still opening doors,” she barks back.
During all this running around Stern and Sundberg show clips from her early appearances and we are reminded why Joan Rivers was so revolutionary in the 1960s. She challenged not just the male dominated comedy world, but the whole of U.S. culture and society. In one memorable clip from the Ed Sullivan Show (if I remember correctly), she jokes about a woman who had fourteen “appendectomies, if you know what I mean.” She remembers that this coded joke about abortion scandalized her manager at the time telling her that women shouldn’t be talking about things like that. As we know, she vehemently disagreed. She worked to stake out a place for herself as a woman in a society not yet ready to accept women as capable and equal. Then, as now, some loved her and some hated her. (She remembers Jack Lemmon walking out of one of her shows when things got a little risqué.) It does seem to be a contradiction that Rivers never was bold enough to challenge our concepts of age, retreating to the same boring youth obsession that so many aging women find themselves trapped in. How would we think of Joan Rivers today if she had aged naturally and not become a plastic surgery joke? Why was she so daring in one area and not in the other? The movie doesn’t unpack her thoughts behind this contradiction.
As good as the movie is of presenting a portrait of a profoundly funny but insecure person, the documentary avoids or glosses over some of the lousy career choices she made. Like the question about plastic surgery, the movie would have been stronger had the directors probed them more. Why, for instance, did she decide to walk away from The Tonight Show? (She was a regular guest host in the 1980s.) It would have benefitted if she had talked about her decision to accept an offer from Fox to host her own late night talk show opposite Johnny Carson, a man who essentially made her career. She says he was extremely angry with her, even slamming down the phone when she called to tell him what she was doing. But she never discusses what led her to the decision. Was she unhappy guest hosting the Tonight Show? Did she feel like Carson was great for her in the beginning, but then he held her back? The documentary never explores her thinking behind this move, nor does it really ask her if she regretted the move.
But more than bad career choices, we see how Rivers’ insecurity has held back her career. She says she always primarily considered herself to be an actor, but she never did anything substantial in the theater or in film. I think it becomes clear that her failure is related to her insecurity rather than a lack of talent. (One thing that we learn watching this is that she could have been a very good actor in both comedy and drama.) A 1973 foray into theater ended in disaster when rotten reviews halted it. She talks about how devastating the failure of the show was to her and, working on a show in London, waits for the reviews with an almost maniacal single-mindedness. The reviews are for her the only redemption she is looking for. When the reviews come back mild to negative the show ends with no discussion of taking it to New York. She ignores the enthusiastic response from the crowds, focusing only on the reviews of critics, as though positive reviews would redeem the 1973 debacle.
Despite these gaps this is a surprisingly candid documentary. Joan Rivers opens up in a way we have never seen before, about the suicide of her husband and the rocky relationship with her longtime manger. I have a new appreciation for Joan Rivers after seeing this movie. We get past all of the bluster and bitchiness that has come to define her and get a glimpse, just a glimpse, at a real person. I wish itgave us a little more, but it is still a fine documentary.