“How William Shatner Changed: William Shatner compares science and technology to what was predicted in the original ‘Star Trek’ series.”
Whether you knew it or not, consider yourself lucky that Netflix has finally put the Joan Rivers documentary A Piece of Work on instant watch, and that I have finally stopped trying to coordinate watching it with my mother. It’s a crying shame that this movie was left off the Oscar shortlist for Best Documentary, because it’s one of the most revealing looks into both one person and Hollywood at the same time. It’s almost as though it couldn’t have won an Oscar, because it’s such a biting and inspiring portrait of one person and their need for fame; it’s too legitimate.
The movie starts, and we are first struck with a deep close-up of Rivers becoming her persona, a thick layer of makeup being put on her bare face, interspersed with mostly black and white images from her past. With this montage, we’re given our first lesson: a face can change, but Joan’s distinctive voice and personality don’t.
As this was all filmed a few years ago, much of the film documents Joan’s freak-outs because she’s in a career slump. At one point, she bitches that, “We have no Vegas, no club dates. Kathy Griffin has taken all that away.” I found this particularly surprising, given her friendship with Griffin now, and the interviews Griffin gives in the film about how much she admires Rivers. To these raves, Rivers says, “If one woman comedian comes up to me and says, ‘You opened the doors to me’…and you want to say ‘Go fuck yourself, I’m still opening doors.'” Her long-time manager explains it best: “Right now they see her as a plastic surgery freak, who’s past due, who’s sell by date is finished.” With this statement, our fate is sealed. We’re convinced that appearance is what holds us back and brings us forward. It defines us, as it defines Joan.
Joan can seem a little “Me me me,” but she is her own brand, and everyone around her benefits from it. She describes herself as “a small industry”, and her daughter Melissa agrees, at one point referring to a moment when she realized Joan’s career was her sibling. Fortunately, Rivers is clearly a dedicated and loving mother, who didn’t want her daughter to go into showbusiness out of protectiveness. But when referring to her own career, she claims she “didn’t have a choice. Ask a nun why she’s a nun.”
Above all, Rivers considers herself an actress, not a comedian (“My career is an actress’ career, and I play a comedian”). When it comes to her jokes, I was amazed to see that she holds back at all, considering some of the stuff she says (despite her love of Michelle Obama, she ends up choosing not to refer to her as “Blackie O” when her staff thinks its inappropriate). When it comes to controversial issues like abortion, Rivers argues that she was the first one to really breach them through comedy on national TV, and describes it as “exactly what women should be talking about.” She brings up the questions we ask ourselves. During one of her appearances with Johnny Carson that made her famous, he said he thought men valued intelligence more than anything. Rivers responded that, “No man has ever put his hand up a woman’s dress looking for a library card.” When she got her own show after her success with Johnny Carson, she proved him right; he had her blacklisted from NBC. Rivers hasn’t forgotten, but points out, “The minute youre not angry about things, the minute youre not upset about things — why are you talking?”
As a “plastic surgery freak”, Joan has fascinating opinions on her looks:
“It’s very scary when you see yourself without any makeup. You get the willies. Who is that person? So I get up in the morning, and the first thing I do, I get to makeup. Now I was never the natural beauty. No man has ever, ever told me I’m beautiful. They said to me, you look great, you’re this, you’re terrific. But no man ever said, ‘Oh my god you’re so beautiful.'”
And on plastic surgery:
“People want to look at pretty woman. No one wants an old woman. So I started with plastic surgery, little bits and tweaks. Then I got very angry because no one would admit it. I really became a big advocate of it. And so then I became the poster girl for it, and then I became the joke of it.”
Joan is always looking forward, never resting on the laurels of her past accomplishments (partly out of need; she admits to living a rather lavish lifestyle). Her manager notes that there’s nothing she can do at this point that the industry will embrace, and Joan explains that she’s “never been the critics darling.” But at the end of the day, she still says that “it’s not a triumph until we read the papers.” Rivers is also acutely aware of comedians around her. At the Kennedy Center Tribute to George Carlin, she fretted over how much funnier her fellow comedians were going to be compared to her, citing their larger professional staffs. Watching the introductions, she gives us biting comments on every person as they’re being mentioned: “Brilliant, overrated, not funny.” She notes that she hated participating in the Comedy Central roast of herself, and only did it for the money — it wasn’t funny enough for her tastes. And no matter what you say about Rivers, she does know what’s funny. Backstage at a show in Wisconsin, she picks up a bottle of wine, looks at the label and says, “May…that’s a good month.”
It doesn’t take a psychoanalyst to note that what Joan seems to be searching for in her professional life — approval — is what she’s never gotten quite enough of in her personal life. She says she tries to appreciate every day that she has, but with her constant movement forward, it’s hard to tell how often she really lets herself do that. The filmmakers have given us an incredibly deep perspective on a public figure, who, for all her ridiculous and catty comments about what other people look like, can take it, even if she doesn’t want to.
Heinz: Only the best for the best.
* Fun Fact: Paul Newman was going to be on Celebrity Apprentice.