November 28, 2010 -- This behind-the-scenes look at the Joan Rivers entertainment empire (Don't call her a comedic Icon who paved the way for others -- she might lay an F-bomb on you for that. “I'm still paving the way,” she says). A camera crew followed the 75-year-old comedienne around for a year and one wonders how this crew, or anyone could keep up with this foul-mouthed workaholic dynamo. She won't retire. She'll probably die on stage, telling a blue joke. If she had to choose a way to bow out, that might just be the way she'd want to go.
I've never witnessed a live performance by Joan Rivers before, only the sanitized version of her on network TV, so I never realized what a potty mouth she is. She loves sexual humor, and likes to point out she was doing abortion humor 40 years ago at a time nobody was talking about it, let alone making jokes about it. She does a regular night club act in New York as a way to try out her humor in a less formal setting. She does a hilarious routine about anal sex that will probably never be seen in network TV.
While telling a joke at a casino about a deaf person she is interrupted by a member of the audience who is angry about the joke because he has a deaf son. Rivers runs the man out of the room with a tirade of her own and gets on with her show. Afterward, she is visibly bothered by the incident. She had no intention of causing the man pain, but said it was a joke and the show absolutely must go on. One gets the feeling she doesn't mind the hecklers, but hates it when they ruin her precise comic timing. The film shows Rivers as a workaholic. Being on stage is what keeps her alive and moving forward. She craves laughs and love from the audience. She hates bad reviews.
Talking about a Comedy Central celebrity roast of Joan Rivers, she frets about the relentless jokes about her age and her plastic surgery that she knows are going to make up the bulk of the jokes at the show. The celebrity roast is a mixed blessing. It pays well, and it is an honor of sorts, but she hates the jokes about her age and face work. The plastic surgery is the price she pays for continuing to work into her 70s in a youth-worshiping business, she says. Rivers says nobody wants to see an old woman perform, so she tries to roll back the clock any way she can, from reinventing her act to reinventing her face.
Rivers premiers a new stage play she has developed, and decides not to open the show in New York because she knows she'll get bad reviews there. Instead, she does a test opening of the play in Edinburgh, Scotland, where she gets bad reviews anyway. The bad reviews really bother her and kills all the good feelings she had about the play. Some of the reviews even mention her age. She says show business is all about rejection, and she knows that, but the reviews hurt all the same. Her daughter, Melissa Rivers, talks about her mother's need for attention and love on stage. Melissa herself becomes very angry when she is “fired” at the same celebrity apprentice show where her mother is also a contestant. Joan Rivers eventually defeats everyone to win the competition. She says she would rather lose before her daughter, but Melissa isn't so sure.
The suicide of Joan River's late husband Edgar Rosenberg and the various kinds of therapy Joan and her daughter, Melissa went through to get over that, show business and otherwise, are portrayed in the film. Part of the therapy was a made-for-TV movie about that tragic part of the family's history. One gets the idea from this film that all of Joan Rivers' relationships, personal and professional, are complicated, just like Joan herself. Witnessing the pain that Joan Rivers reveals when she speaks of her late husband, I was reminded of a quote from another performer, Judy Garland, who once said, “In the silence of night I have often wished for just a few words of love from one man, rather than the applause of thousands of people.” Applause and laughter are poor substitutes for love, but they are better than nothing, and that terrible nothingness is what Joan Rivers seems to be fleeing from. It is that same quest that drives her on at such a pace and which is the wellspring of her creativity.
I learned a lot from this movie, as I suspect most people will who are not very familiar with Joan Rivers. I was aware of Joan Rivers, as mainly the butt of jokes, the way Phillis Diller was. She was on my radar, but I had no idea how hard she works and how funny she is. Show business may be easy for some people, but it is tough for Joan Rivers. She fights for every bit of respect she can get and every dollar she can get. She'll take any show business job she can get for as much money as she can get. She seems to be a very tough businesswoman, as her win on the Apprentice show would indicate. This is a good inside look at one aspect of show business. It rates a B.
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