Wednesday, August 14, 2019

Ricki Stern and Anne Sundberg | Joan Rivers : A Piece of Work

Daring the Mirror to Reveal Someone Else

Steve Kemsley (director) Joan Rivers: (Still A) Live at the London Palladium / 2005
Ricki Stern (writer), Ricki Stern and Anne Sundberg (director) Joan Rivers: A Piece of Work / 2010

Can we talk? Let me began by asserting that—however wonderfully kind, supportive, loving, groundbreaking and whatever other attribution you might use to use to describe the comedian Joan Rivers as a mother, friend, acquaintance, and performer—Rivers’ later career on stage and television was marked by an embracement of the crassest, most outré, and outrightly bigoted of American values. Surely Rivers felt she could represent herself as the outspoken supporter for all anti-correct-thinking attitudes, in part, because of her almost giddy acceptance of a somewhat absurdist Jonathan Swift-like position which she honed, with her rapier-sharp commentary, on  not only whatever her audiences thought was  beyond the limits of good taste, but outside any one’s definition of what most might imagine to be subjects of humor.

     In her 2005 performance at London’s Palladium, for example, Rivers tackled a wide range of inconceivable topics from death, suicide (both animal and human), murder, cannibalism, racial and sexual prejudice, extreme extensions of human body parts (including breasts, testicles and vaginas), bodily smells (most specifically farts), Queen Elizabeth II’s crotch, Liza Minnelli’s marriage to a gay man, her “friend” Julie Andrews’ throat damage, Helen Keller’s deafness and blindness, the 9/11 bombings, and, by implication, even the Holocaust! Where can you go from there? Perhaps it isn’t an accident that at one point Rivers stretched her body out flat upon the stage floor.

     While one might suggest that Rivers’ frenetic hate fest incorporating most of these jokes (she “hates, absolutely hates old people”; she’s convinced that all Philippinos consume their dogs and that every actor in Hollywood has had facial surgery; Anne Frank, she argues, was a “whiner” in need of a nose job; her own mother-in-law could only complain when Rivers attempted to cremate her—alive!) is a kind of black humor that has its roots in Kafka, Beckett or even Sade--even more troubling, I would argue, are the things that the fictitious persona of Rivers absolutely loves, which includes nearly every bourgeois element of what used to be described as the American dream. Rivers’ persona mostly admires beauty and money, and everything that comes with that: marriage (no matter how meaningless; an unmarried woman who lives with a man is automatically an “absolute slut!”), financial well-being, a grandiose house filled with possessions, a fashionable life (beautiful clothes, glittering jewels, and elaborate (even if time-worn furs) and, finally, as the natural apotheosis of all of these qualities and things, celebrity.

    Arguably these “desirable” things are simply the mirror-opposites of those dark forces of which the comedian makes fun, thus incorporating a gigantic satiric portrait of American life. But Rivers herself, in her own numerous admitted attempts to beautify herself through countless “nips-and-tucks” of the plastic surgeon’s knife (“I was the ugliest girl in the little town of Larchmont”), her life-time predilection for wearing beautiful gowns, jewelry, and furs, and her clear infatuation with celebrities and her own celebrity-status creates a severe problem if we might wish to credit her humor with any irony.

     When she reports that her daughter, Melissa, “stupidly” turned down an offer to be a Playboy model, berating her child and herself for refusing to do something with which she felt uncomfortable when she might have otherwise earned a great deal of money, it is somewhat difficult to know whether the joke she is telling is based on Swiftian overstatement or a real, gut emotional response. When my English students, long ago, were confused by Swift’s insistence that it may be useful for the British to eat Irish children, I could always try to point to the language itself to make his “real” values more apparent; but in the case of Rivers, it is nearly impossible, at times, to separate the artifact from the fact that she has almost become everything that she claims to value; and one wonders, accordingly, whether or not she truly hates or at least devalues all those things she claims to so honestly to speak out against.

      Her distasteful jokes and her ridiculous values are only laughable, it seems to me, if we can inherently imagine that Rivers, as a real person, is simply presenting a shtick, a series of bizarre one-liners that, at heart, represent values that she actually disavows. Yes, Sophie Tucker, may have been a coarse figure, slyly insinuating sexual fables that shocked some in her audience, but no one truly believed that Tucker was actually spending her days enacting her reports. Even the would-be femme fatale Mae West, anyone with even a little bit of perception knew, was probably more beloved by the gay boys whom she eventually incorporated into her act, than by any significantly endowed heterosexual man. Lucille Ball may have played a loud-mouthed, lying ditz, but we also recognized that she was a beautifully smart lady of great cleverness. Phyllis Diller (who, at moments, Rivers—at least in her commentaries on her married life—seems to imitate) may have dressed the part of a badly clothes-coordinated street lady, but we knew, or at least guessed, that behind her façade of self-demeaning put-downs, she was a grand beauty. The sometimes seemingly potty-mouthed “tramp” through which Bette Middler vamps, we all know is a cover-up for the sweet, slightly sentimental, gal she is at heart. As I have noted earlier in this volume, anyone with a stitch of brains realized that if Elaine Stritch was a tough broad, she was also a permanently naïve lover of life.

     Rivers celebrated none of these obviously deviously comic personae. Rivers did, in fact, look quite lovely, was well-dressed, her hair professionally retouched and cut. She looked like a lady, but spoke as if she had lived in the sewer for most of a life that she had spent scratching to get up and out.

     When onstage The Palladium she seems disappointed with the size of the purposeless orchestra (for which she claims, she had to pay for herself), we can’t imagine that she’s lying to us. She wants, she claims time and again, everything that money can buy. Her outrage for getting six and a mirror for the 12 players she ordered up—even if they perform briefly only upon her entry and exit—seems utterly genuine. Although she may perform anywhere and everywhere just for the love of an audience—several of whose members she demeans throughout her skits—we truly believe she would like the stage to be filled, as were some corners of the Palladium, with flowers and plants. A great part of her personae, in fact, depends on our belief that she is utterly honest—which is why her audiences let her escape with the numerous expressions of intolerance and hate; in a sense, she’s asked for and gained our permission to dish out the worst before she serves up what she proclaims in the best of life.

      But what if the audience, such as the English one at the Palladium, doesn’t want or even comprehend all that American straightforwardness that advertises its own ultimate ugliness of moral values and convictions? What if her audience doesn’t know who Paris Hilton or the countless other irrelevant “celebrities” Rivers mentions are? In several instances, the poor camerawoman of her Palladium performance seems to have had almost jump over seats with camera in hand to show us a few laughing youths to create any sense of response.

     If nothing else, you have to give Rivers credit for walking that tightrope between who she pretended to be and who she just might been night after night. At times like the ugly Queen in Snow White, Rivers dared the mirror reflect back someone else.

     The above comments were in reaction to watching the Joan Rivers video of her performance at the London Palladium, which I watched after the news of her death last week, after she suddenly stopped breathing during minor surgery. For the same reason I also took time out to view the 2010 documentary about Rivers made by directors Annie Guldberg and Ricki Stern.

     That film, both directly and indirectly, brought up many of the same issues I discussed above. On one the level the film portrayed an absolutely level-headed and smart business woman struggling to keep her career going long after the age (75) at which most comedians and actors have given up any hope of performing. There is something endearing about a woman who cannot imagine retirement, and who clearly is a fanatic about her ability to continue doing what she loves most, to stand upon as stage (“The only time I am truly happy”).

    Despite admittedly difficult times with her daughter, Melissa, moreover, the documentary makes clear that Rivers deeply loves her and, despite the career—which Melissa argues stood always as another “being” in her mother’s life—worked hard with her husband Edgar to give her a “normal” life.

   Certainly, Rivers admittedly plays the Diva (even if the Diva is often lonely), but she is also absolutely humble in her willingness to take on almost any job offered her, including ads for Depends adult diapers and gigs in small towns such as the one we witness of her performing in Wisconsin. As she makes it clear, given the fact that she must pay not only for her only quite lavish penthouse life, but helps with education and support of several relatives, she needs money. But money seems almost secondary compared to her need to be “loved” as someone who daily makes people laugh.

   If on stage Rivers “hates” the old, children, and even those who suffer, every Thanksgiving morning she delivers (this year with her young grandson) meals to those who, ill and dying, cannot get out of their apartments. In the afternoon, Rivers invites relatives, friends, neighbors, and even a few homeless people to dine with her.

     Even if Rivers comes off as psychotically insecure and needy, in short, she is also presented as a savvy and loving individual who comprehends precisely the outsider comedic vein she is mining. When, during her Wisconsin performance, an audience member virulently reacts to one of her jokes about the deaf (he has, so he announces, a deaf son), Rivers abuses him right back, insisting upon her right to use anything to make human beings chuckle; but later she admits that he comprehends his hurt. She has, after all, made her career, as she puts it, “going into places you shouldn’t go.”

     And despite the shell of toughness she near-perpetually projects, we also glimpse throughout A Piece of Work, the difficult times—Johnny Carson’s refusal to ever speak to her again after she took on a show on Fox Network, the suicide of her husband Edgar, and the overall ups and downs of her career—which has helped, as she admits, to make her “furious about everything” that is not right and just in the world. As an agent reports, Rivers is stoic in her insistence about “standing out in the rain” to wait for the lightning to once again strike.

    Yet watching this sensitive film, one is also struck with just how perverse Rivers’ personal values are. Her penthouse may represent great wealth, but in its faux Marie Antoinette French interiors it represents a kitsch ginger-bread conception of great wealth (“Marie Antoinette would have lived here if she could have afforded it?). The gold leaf upon its walls, it short, may really be gold-leaf, but the whole concoction represents no one’s personal taste as much as it does a taste acquired by someone who has leafed through too many lavish decorators’ catalogues. In her own home, we recognize, Rivers lives in a kind of stage-set—even if all the objects in it represent the “real” thing—as Henry James might have joked.

     In fact, beyond the obsession to recreate her own body, Rivers, an astute observer easily perceives, never lived in a “real” world. Everything in her life was an image of an image; language for this comedian was never something that actually might create reality but merely something that stood in, like a metaphor, for some reality lying always just outside her grasp.

    Perhaps the most telling moment of this sometimes brutally honest deconstruction of the Rivers “semi”-legend comes when she begins to describe her love of acting. I always wanted to be an actor, she claims. “I got into comedy only as a way to make money so that I could act.”
     In short, Rivers herself is a work of “art,” is not a real being, but something she has herself created. Her career, she insists, is an actress’ career, and “I play a comedian.” We must admit that as a comedian-performer she certainly gave her all, literally “dancing as fast as she [could].” But sadly she interpreted her audience’s laughter—and no one’s jokes better fit Henri Bergson’s definition of laughter being intertwined with hostility or even hate—as showering her with acceptance and love.

     Sadly, it becomes apparent, when Rivers looked into the mirror there was, most often, absolutely no one there!

Los Angeles, September 17-18, 2014

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