I wish I'd seen Joan Rivers: A Piece of Work back when I was writing posts about movies suitable for Halloween. In a way, this documentary is a change of pace for the directing team of Ricki Stern and Anne Sundberg, whose previous work includes The Trials of Darryl Hunt (about a man who was wrongfully convicted of rape and murder) and The Devil Came on Horseback (about the efforts of human rights activist Brian Steidle to draw attention to Darfur), but in another way, it's not: those movies also made you think about how much some people suck. Though it dips a toe into the history of its subject's life and career--her becoming a mainstay of The Tonight Show as frequent guest and regular guest host, her banishment from Johnny Carson's sight after her disastrous attempt to launch a competing talk show of her own, the suicide of her husband, Edgar--it's really about the place she's at now and the person she's become: a 77-year-old monster with a Cat-Women from the Moon face whose need for ego gratification is scarily unquenchable. She frequently refers to her need for money to explain why she's still working, but it's clear that what she really needs, the way Dracula needs blood, is what she and her crew refer to as "face time", preferably on a major TV network. Her best explanation for what she was doing on The Apprentice--and dragging her daughter, Melissa (who refers to Mom's career as her "sibling") along for part of the ride--is that it got her back on NBC. Presumably it was worth enduring the judgment of Donald Trump to feel that Johnny Carson was spinning in his grave.
Rivers says at one point that you can say what you like about her as a comedian, but she's proudest of herself, and expects to be taken seriously, as an actress. I didn't know she ever acted. From what's shown here, most of her notable "acting" has been as herself; she and Melissa played themselves in a ghoulish TV movie about what they went through when Edgar died, and we get to see a snippet of the play she took to the Edinburgh Festival Fringe, which looks to have been a one-woman show about her life. But her own boasts to the contrary, you can't say anything about her at all--or, you can, but then she'll never stop whimpering about it. After talking about how eager she is to take her new play to Broadway, she abandons the idea because the British notices aren't sufficiently glowing to suit her. (She wrote a play that died in New York in the early '70s, and says she never got over the experience. The one movie she directed, the unspeakable 1978 Rabbit Test< starring Billy Crystal as a pregnant man, isn't mentioned, but presumably the response it got also killed any further ambitions she had as a moviemaker.) During her standup act, she bawls out a man in the audience to a joke about deafness--he says he has a deaf child--by yelling at him that he doesn't understand how comedy works and should just shut his pie hole, then wrings her heart out afterward, telling everyone how she feels the guy's pain: seeing her callously strike the man down to his face and then lament the fact that there's one person out there who paid to see her but now doesn't like her would count as a low point for any normal human being. As if to prove that she doesn't quite qualify as that, she then tops herself by agreeing to be the subject of a Comedy Central roast and agonizing over how painful it is to have to sit there listening to other people make cruel jokes about her. (Let me repeat that: Joan Rivers agonizes over how painful it is to have others make cruel jokes about her.)
A Piece of Work is interesting, in the manner of one of those nature documentaries where you get to see a snake inhale a mouse in slow motion. What bugs me, though, is something that Rivers can't really be blamed for, though I doubt she has a problem with it. It's the number of reviews I've seen that compare Rivers, especially in her unguarded, "candid" moments, to Lenny Bruce. Say the fuck what? I know these are forgetful and discounted times we're living in, but has Lenny Bruce's reputation really shriveled to the point where people who write about movies for a living think he was just a mean bastard with nothing on his mind but the contents of the latest fan magazines who reserved his scorn for anyone in show business younger and more successful than himself? At one point in the movie, Rivers tries out a new joke on her entourage: she says she's been thinking about how Michelle Obama is this new style icon, and she remembers when the White House queen of fashion was Jackie O, and now it looks like it's Blackie O. Everyone on Team Rivers practically pukes at this, as well they might, and Rivers says, okay, it's out, but it's too bad, because "it's a good joke." Everything you need to know about Rivers's comic imagination is right there, starting with the fact that she assumes people must be groaning at that line because it's tasteless or outrageous, because, God help her, she thinks it's a good joke.
True, Bruce wasn't funny at the end of his career either, but that's because he was up there on stage reading court transcripts and babbling about his legal troubles. (And even though he really was hurting for money, he also rejected a role that Terry Southern had written for him in a major motion picture, The Loved One, because he didn't think it was meaty enough or sufficiently shaped to his particular talents to be worth his time--probably a fair suspicion, given that it wound up being played by Lionel Stander. The point is, it's really hard to see him agreeing to be a contestant on Celebrity Apprentice, just for the sake of a little "face time".) Maybe the idea isn't that Bruce's work was garbage, like Rivers's; maybe it's that Rivers, like the Jewish hipster junkie Bruce, supplies an abrasive outsider's viewpoint, and tells valuable, harsh truths, because she's 77 years old, and woman, in a culture that reveres youth and (still) has problems with the idea that a woman can be funny. It's an interesting idea that can't survive exposure to thirty seconds of Rivers herself, onstage or off. As blasphemy, it's not far out of the weight class of Bill O'Reilly's instantly infamous column insisting that Jesus would have made careful distinctions between people who deserved his charity and those who didn't have it coming to them, because "he was not self-destructive." (Do people like O'Reilly and Pat Buchanan--who called The Last Temptation of Christ sacrilegious because it portrayed Jesus as a pacifistic sort instead of a punch-throwing tough guy--think that the guy who healed an enemy's severed ear before turning himself in to be judged and executed was some other character? Or was the church just going through a weird phase when these guys were in Catholic school?) About the only good thing that can come from comparing Joan Rivers and Lenny Bruce is that it serves to remind us that there are worse things for the body and soul than heroin addiction.