Even with her recent surgery complications and her failing health of late, Joan River’s death was definitely a draper on the day. More than just a remarkable stand-up, Rivers was a groundbreaking talent, pushing female comedy in ways that—for the most part—are either overlooked or forgotten due to her brash, critical presence.
It’s long being told that, although Rivers wanted to be a serious actress, her laughed-at performance made her feel like she had no choice but comedy in show business. If that is true, then she made a knack for being laughed at and then some. Inspiring hundreds of thousands of female comedians, being the first woman ever to host a late-night talk show and breaking down the doors on what comedy could be, Rivers was a force of reckoning not unlike the also recently passed Robin Williams.
But, like Williams, there was a lot of personal distrust, self-loathing and misery behind that plastic smile. And these thoughts, emotions, as well as her long-standing career and all-out personality, was perfectly counseled into the 2010 documentary Joan Rivers: A Piece of Work.
Directed by Ricki Stern and Annie Sundberg, much like this year’s Roger Ebert documentary Life Itself, the movie is able to balance its empathy and its even-handed criticism in stride. But what really makes this documentary click is—you guess it—Rivers herself. Who, like her stand-up, is able to show no signs of inhibition, but also was able to showcase her deep rooted insecurities, years of suffering and personal frustrations that comes across not as self-pitying but heart wrenching.
Currently on Netflix Instant, Stern and Sundberg’s film is not only a great celebration of River’s life and career, but also the perfect way to look back on the late comedian. It’s easy to belittle Rivers over the years for her overworked appearance, her insensitivity and her constant pushes towards remaining in the spotlight. But this documentary shows not only how talented and funny she was, but also how tirelessly she worked, how hard she pushed for her media appearance and her work and also how sympathetic and likable she could be.
It’s a given that Rivers is among the best of her genre of stand-up. She has been for decades, a testament to her talent if ever there was one. But, like this documentary shows, she was so well beyond her peers because, not only was she able to dish it, she was able to take it. And boy, did she take it, as the movie—and the media—have shown.
Looking back on Rivers’ 81 years on this planet, her stand-up specials, her books, and her late night appearances will likely be remembered the most. But this movie is truly a fully-fleshed examination on who Rivers was not just as a talent, but as a person. That person was someone who, while internally flawed, kept at her craft, constantly found ways to reinvent herself, and makes sure—most of all—that we all kept laughing. Even if she was crying a little inside.
Image courtesy of Walter McBride/ INFphoto.com