Joan Rivers, comic without pause

Posted: June 18, 2010

If the Joan Rivers of 1980 could look at herself in 2010, she might describe Rivers 8.0 as a dirty-mouthed septuagenarian who resembles a female impersonator "doing" Joan Rivers.

Two years ago Billy Sammeth, the comedian's erstwhile manager, observed that "people now see her as a plastic-surgery addict who's past her sell-by date."

That was then. Joan Rivers: A Piece of Work is now, testament to the enduring resilience and indefatigable wit of its subject. Age cannot wither her, nor Botox stale her infinite hilarity.

A transgressively funny portrait shot during her 75th year, the film from Ricki Stern and Annie Sundberg follows Rivers as she winds through her career valley and snakes back up to performance peak.

Stern and Sundberg, best known for their Darfur documentary The Devil Came on Horseback, did not shrink from the atrocities in Sudan; nor do they shrink from the fame-hungry excesses here.

From her Louis Seize-style Manhattan penthouse - described as "how Marie Antoinette would live if she had money" - to her hectic schedule of cosmetic surgery, comedy clubs, and peddling jewelry on QVC, Rivers is a careerist single-minded about promoting the brand.

"The only time I'm truly happy is on stage," confesses the widow, whose husband/manager Edgar Rosenberg committed suicide in Philadelphia in 1987, depressed after the Fox network canceled Rivers' pathbreaking late-night show. Her grown daughter, Melissa, wryly observes that her mother's career was her sibling.

While the filmmakers don't explicitly state what Rivers' product is, based on the evidence of her salacious wisecracks, stand-up routines, and facial reconstruction, she sells self-deprecation and its corollary, self-beautification. The contrast between her ladylike demeanor and her smutty material provokes gasps and guffaws.

In a clip from a 1966 appearance on The Tonight Show, Johnny Carson beholds the handsome Rivers like a hungry man eyeing a lamb chop, reassuring her that men truly do like brainy women. "No man has ever put his hand up a woman's dress looking for a library card," she slams back. Her swift wit earned her the throne of The Tonight Show's "permanent guest host," queen to Carson's king of comedy.

When the Fox network offered her her own show, she accepted, and the jilted Carson never spoke to her again. Her show went south, followed by her career. She came back, after a fashion, with her red-carpet snark attacks and by becoming the poster girl for cosmetic surgery.

Blessed with the work ethic, energy, and hunger of someone half her age (not to mention file cabinets full of jokes), Rivers proceeds from has-been to comeback kid during the course of this film, shot in 2008. A victory on The Celebrity Apprentice helped win her more club dates and personal appearances.

"She has outstanding timing and takes her work seriously," says her friend Don Rickles. What he neglects to say, but is evident to anyone who sees her in action, is that this broad is seriously funny.


Contact movie critic Carrie Rickey at 215-854-5402 or crickey@phillynews.com. Read her blog, "Flickgrrl," at http://www.philly.com/philly/blogs/flickgrrl/

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