Can We Talk?

By James, Caryn | Newsweek, May 31, 2010 | Go to article overview

Can We Talk?


James, Caryn, Newsweek


Byline: Caryn James

We know Joan Rivers can be tacky, abrasive, self-mocking. On her way to winning Celebrity Apprentice last year, she berated professional gambler Annie Duke, screaming "You're a pokah playah--that's beyond white trash!" Her scary-surgery face now looks out from Snickers ads below a line that reads, "When I'm hungry I get my face lowered." And the second season of her TV Land series How'd You Get So Rich? in which she gushes over homes of the nouveau riche--the gaudier, the better--has just begun. But culturally significant? Turns out she's that too.

A sleek documentary, Joan Rivers: A Piece of Work, makes a convincing case for her. Without her coarse, sexually frank stand-up, where would Sarah Silverman and Chelsea Handler be? The film's trickier, more revealing theme appears between the lines. The cameras followed Rivers for a year, beginning in mid-2008 when she turned 75, capturing moments of raw honesty often in the same scenes that display huge blind spots. In a limo on the way to a Comedy Central roast, Rivers whines to her assistant, "I am so depressed," because she's anticipating the predictable jokes about surgery and aging. So why does she do it? For the money--not exactly a depressing motive. (After all, she has a staff and a gilded, faux-Versailles apartment to maintain.) What emerges is a remarkable portrait of the vanity, vulnerability, and personal cost of being an ambitious old lady in celebrity culture.

A Piece of Work is also pretty funny. Clips from Rivers's decades-old routines show why her humor was so startling: in a time before legal abortion she jokes about a girlfriend who kept shuttling back and forth to Puerto Rico, where she'd had "14 appendectomies." Rivers still doesn't play it safe. The film follows her to contemporary club dates, and one of the biggest laughs comes when she demonstrates the sort of sex she likes, a kind that lets her lie on her stomach and multitask, reading e-mails on her BlackBerry. Being the shocking granny has become part of her shtik. You can think of her compulsive whirl of energy as an exemplary way to stay young, but there's no way to be generous about her cosmetic surgeries. They suggest an almost pathological resistance to aging, beyond anything Hollywood requires. Truly, only her eyelids and plumped-up lips seem to move in her granite-hard face, which looks even more alarming on a big screen than on television.

But don't expect a full-frontal view beneath that mask. In the opening credits we watch her putting on makeup in extreme close-up: there's a blotchy eyelid here, a chin with visible pores there, but we never see her full naked face. That's a perfect metaphor for the film, which never quite comes clean. Rivers seems to be blunt in describing her marriage to Edgar Rosenberg, a producer she married four days after they met. "Was I madly in love with him? No. Was it a good marriage? Yes," she says, which doesn't ex-plain much. …

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