Recently, I took myself off to see Joan Rivers: A Piece of Work at the Australian Centre for the Moving Image. While I laughed away as I watched Joan in full flight on stage, calling her daughter a cunt for refusing an offer to pose for Playboy and thus the accompanying big payday, it did cross my mind that ACMI seemed too refined a venue for a film packed with old-time showbiz brashnesss, given the organisation’s kindly air of artistic endeavour. Having said that, though, I recall that the first time I ever heard of Joan Rivers was when I read in Smash Hitsthat she and Boy George had had afternoon tea at Claridge’s, so this certainly wasn’t the first time I’d encountered her in a genteel context.
Anyhow, I think I can safely say that I, along with all the homosexual men and other middle-aged women in the packed cinema, relished watching A Piece of Work. Rivers herself is funny and compelling onstage and off, partly because when she’s offstage her personality combines an almost confronting level of vulnerability and neediness with uncontained fury at virtually everything to do both with her own life and life in general. While watching the movie, part of my brain was assuming that Rivers, if only because she’s been around the traps for a long time, is a person who’s surely far too canny and with too much self-awareness to allow herself truly to look bad in a feature-length film about her life.
Two other individuals immediately come to mind as unquestionably the ones I’ve seen come off looking the most atrocious as documentary subjects. The easy winner is Troy Duffy (who is apparently a musician, as well as the writer and director of The Boondock Saints and The Boondock Saints II: All Saints Day) as he appears to us in Overnight, the film about his spectacular rise and dramatic fall. This is a man so wholly repellent in his psychotic level of self-belief, his relentless rudeness and energetic misogyny, that he manages to put the viewer automatically on side with any and all of the many people in Hollywood with whom he comes to blows in the course of the action. Coming in second is Orny Adams in Jerry Seinfeld: Comedian. Orny, a stand-up comedian whose career was at that time promising but not hitting the heights, had been included in the film to serve as contrast to its subject, a man, who, it is safe to say, has ‘arrived’. Orny himself exists in a constant state of anger comparable to Joan Rivers’ but without her compensatory self-deprecating humour. Orny seems especially angry that he’s less successful than Jerry Seinfeld, when, Christ on a bicycle, who isn’t?
Still, neither Troy nor Orny was an old hand at being a public figure at the time they burst on to our screens, which, I suppose, made them less inclined to censor themselves, and so more likely to find themselves immortalised as first-rate arses. On the other hand, perhaps they are just first-rate arses, while Rivers doesn’t actually have a worse side than the one we see in A Piece of Work. Perhaps Rivers’ way is to get all her nastiness out in public life, in doing so demonstrating a certain amount of pluck, no matter how well she has been paid, in her long-term openness to having big buckets of shit fall on her head. Anyway, the moment where Joan looks the worst in A Piece of Work is, ironically, the only one where she’s obviously trying to make herself look good: when she says that she has been habitually holding herself back in order not to look smarter than her daughter, Melissa, while they are in competition on Celebrity Apprentice. This statement seemed, first, unkind; and, second, unlikely to be true, which is a viewpoint echoed by Melissa herself.
Anyhow, I found out much of note through watching A Piece of Work. First up, Joan has a telephone that appears to have been fashioned from tomato-coloured marble. Also, and while I suppose this isn’t an enormous surprise, she is terrified of being seen without makeup, which seems entirely reasonable to me. I’ve always been sorry for men that the New Romantic movement didn’t permanently lead to makeup for all. Then, I was astonished to learn that when you are the subject of a celebrity roast, you are paid a lot of money: Rivers observes dolefully in the limo on the way to hers that she’s only putting herself through this torture for the cash. I had always thought that people like Rivers and Chevy Chase had to sit for hours in front of a large and interested audience being told what physically freakish, drug-gulping monsters they, respectively, are, because this is regarded as a massive show business honour, and that it is only the ‘roasters’ who actually see any dollars.
Unquestionably the most astonishing thing I learned, though, was that in the nineteen nineties, Rivers and Melissa played themselves in a telemovie, Tears and Laughter: The Joan and Melissa Rivers Story, about how they both coped in the aftermath of the suicide of Joan’s husband and Melissa’s father, Edgar Rosenberg. Thanks to the Internet, I have discovered that this drama boasts an opening sequence in which Joan is in hospital for a liposuction procedure and that, later on, the viewer is treated to the monologue she served out to Edgar while he lay in his coffin. The problem is, though, that A Piece of Work devotes mere minutes to Tears and Laughter, while I was craving to see and know more. Rivers maintains that participating in the film was a big help to her and Melissa, so I surely say good luck to them, but this doesn’t make the project itself seem any less deeply nuts.
Even while I was being tantalised by the flashes of Tears and Laughter, I was reminded of seeing the documentary The Kid Stays in the Picture about one-time king of Hollywood, and man about town, Robert Evans, and my strong views that it dealt far too briefly with the Evans/NBC anti-drugs initiative, ‘Get High on Yourself’. Apparently, Evans became involved in this project after he, Evans, had pleaded guilty to buying five ounces of cocaine, and the judge said (probably according to Evans himself), ‘I want you to use your unique talents where others have failed in this horrid thing of drug abuse by children.’ In The Kid, there’s what seems mere seconds of the movement’s anthem, which is sung by a gallery of hyped-up stars but that, for some reason, features Henry Winkler particularly heavily. Undeniably remarkable though Evans’ life has been, nothing in the film made my jaw drop to the same degree as did this brief snatch of ‘Get High on Yourself’.
In the closing credits of A Piece of Work, Rivers is seen saying to the filmmakers that she knows they must be hoping that she dies before their documentary is released, a thought that, I have to admit, had crossed my mind also. Rivers, however, is planning not only to live a while longer but to be performing at least into her eighties, as she, first of all, has a lavish lifestyle to maintain and, second, has no interest in retiring. Hobbies-wise, she points out that, yes, she paints, but ‘Who gives a fuck?’