A funny old lady…

by anzya

I am in New York right now and am loving (amongst other things of course) all the great little cinemas in this city and all the great little films I have to choose from! Yesterday, at the adorable Quad Cinema, I saw the hilarious and thought-provoking new doco on Joan Rivers. Being of the generation for whom Rivers is synonymous only with plastic surgery, the film was a happy surprise to me. It was also surprising to recognise how Jewish Rivers’ humour is… a mixture of embarrassing candidness, self-deprecation and self-obsession, that can be compared to other Jewish comic greats of her era, as the Village Voice points out:

The Barnard-educated daughter of a Westchester doctor who never changed his name from Molinsky, she broke into comedy in the mid-’60s playing the same Village dives that nurtured Woody Allen and Barbra Streisand. (In a sense, she was an amalgam of the two—at once neurotically self-deprecating and stridently physical, not to mention blatantly “too Jewish.”)

The Voice article also makes some valid criticism about the film. Namely that it omits her back story (briefly outlined above) entirely and that it makes no mention of her obvious influence on contemporary Jewish comediennes. “Rivers not only anticipated the shock value of Sarah Silverman’s Jewish princess vulgarity but the class-conscious spite with which Sandra Bernhard attacks celebrity culture”, the Voice writes. Yet, “neither woman is interviewed—perhaps at Joan’s request.”

The overall favourable New York Times review also cautions that:

An equal-opportunity offender, she has taken plenty of people down on her way up, including other women. Watching some of her nastier “Tonight Show” spots (which aren’t in the movie), I find it hard to decide if her pokes at Elizabeth Taylor’s weight are more painful than her self-lacerating jibes.

Indeed perhaps the doco was a lot kinder than it could have been to Rivers. But I couldn’t help but really admire this aspect of the film. It makes me uncomfortable when documentaries gain the trust and generous candidness of their subjects, and then disparage them from a filmmaker’s supposed objective distance. I also felt that, given Rivers is a figure usually derided along such misogynist and ageist lines, the warmth and respect given to her by filmmakers Ricki Stern and Annie Sundberg were very welcome.

Part of the warmth of this film were the parts where despite Rivers’ ego-centrism, we are able to see her vulnerable. One such scene, perhaps one of my favourites, was where Rivers’ is invited to do a comedy routine as part of a tribute to the comedian George Carlin. She’s so nervous in the hotel room before the show, that my friend in the cinema with me leaned over and whispered- “don’t you just want to hug her?” We really get the sense of how much of a “boys club” the comedy scene is, and admire how, sticking out in a flowy, drapy, red dress amidst a crowd of suits, she holds her own in a night, and by extension an industry, made up predominantly of younger male comedians.

Of course the film by no means blindly adulates Rivers. Her flaws, such as her almost grotesque addiction to wealth and luxury, is actually quite depressing. In another memorable segment, Rivers agrees to be the butt of a Comedy Central Roast which she rightly describes as one of the most demeaning contemporary comic traditions. We then watch her smiling obediently on stage while a slew of male comedians ridicule her age, body and appearance. In the limo on the way to the show, Rivers tells the camera that she is only doing this because the money is good”. Though after seeing how indulgent and extravagantly Rivers lives, you just want to shake her and tell her it’s not worth it! At 76 years old though, Rivers can acknowledge her failings, but is too old and unwilling to change them.

In all the film comes highly recommended by this Jewish girl. Hopefully, like me, it will make you swing between wanting to hug and shake the at once wonderful, sympathetic, joyfully hilarious and tragic comic figure.