In the previous millennium, when I was an idealistic young thing attending Barnard College, the women’s college affiliated with Columbia University, there was a lot of talk about who before us had walked the hallowed halls: anthropologist Margaret Mead, writers Edna St. Vincent Millay, Zora Neale Thurston, Francine du Plessix Gray, Patricia Highsmith and Ntozake Shange, recent United States ambassador to the U.N. Jeanne Kirkpatrick, musicians Laurie Anderson and Suzanne Vega (whose song “Luka” was then on all the airwaves), NPR’s Susan Stamberg, nationally syndicated columnist Anna Quindlen, choreographer Twyla Tharp, pre-Omnimedia Martha Stewart, whose daughter had also recently attended.
We students looked up to these women, our heroes. No trivia about them was too slight to swap and discuss. But I can only remember a couple of times when the name Joan Rivers was mentioned, and then only with a smirk. It seemed unbelievable that someone like her—brash, crass, undignified, disfigured by plastic surgery even then—could have once been part of our very serious undertakings in academia and feminism. Above all, we were earnest, and serious, and she was not.
The truth is that we failed to recognize Rivers for the pioneer she was. Those were the early days of “Seinfeld.” The backstage world of stand up comedy was still a mystery. There was no Comedy Central. We had no idea how brutal the world was in which she had risen. What a boy’s club. We were feminists, but we still thought we had to be ladies, or at least decorous. We disapproved of Joan Rivers.
Well, what did we know? Martha would go on to rule over all things female: weddings, entertaining, flowers, crafts, cooking. But the surprise is that Joan Rivers, now seventy-five years old, who seemed even then to be on the wane, continues. And the entertaining new documentary, “Joan Rivers: A Piece of Work” shows the incredible scrappiness and determination it has taken her to survive.
Born in 1933, Joan Rivers grew up Joan Molinsky in affluent Larchmont, NY, a dark-haired girl with a big nose. Her mother, as she relates, continually assured her that “looks don’t matter.” Meaning that she was ugly and they all knew it. “No man,” Joan says, at one particularly poignant moment, “has ever told me I looked beautiful.
Oh, they say, ‘You look great!’ But never beautiful.” And so the plastic surgeries began—very early, from all appearances. By the time of her first TV appearances, in the mid-1960s, her nose had been transformed into a ski slope, although not yet the snub it is today.
Part of the fascination of the film is the grotesque state of her present face, with eyes slanted to cat-like angles from numerous lifts and lips and cheeks so swollen she can sometimes barely speak. But despite her obsession with her looks, Joan is, in an interesting way, completely without vanity. The film opens with her bare face, shot closer-up than any of us would allow for ourselves. One can see the veins in her eyelids and hints of scar tissue around her eyes and nose.
She looks old, unhealthy, fragile, almost dead. Gradually, thick stage makeup is slapped on, in a healthy golden shade that gives no hint of the ashen, ruddy skin beneath. Heavy eye shadows and liners, lip liners and lipstick, until the Joan we know from photos finally emerges. It is a complete transformation. Joan has really let us see the real her underneath.
She even allows the camera to run right after she returns from a session at the dermatologist, where she’s been all “shot up.” Her face is splotchy from the needle, her cheeks puffed up so high it looks as though she’s suffering a horrible allergic reaction. But what Joan needs more than anything, far more than dignity, is attention. If the camera wants to roll, she’s game.
In the same way she is completely open about the ups and downs of her career, her relationships with her husband and daughter, the humiliations, anger, fears and needs that drive her. She even agrees, for the money, to a celebrity roast she finds mean and hurtful. She needs the money to fund her unbelievably lavish lifestyle. She has ridden in only limousines “since 1986.” And she lives in insane palatial comfort. Her manager says it’s like “the Queen of England.”
Joan says it’s like “Maria (sic) Antoinette.” Let’s just say poor Bernie Madoff lived like a pauper compared to Joan. But she is also generous to her numerous staff. They are paid well, and Joan takes care of their children’s private school tuitions too. No wonder they are devoted. Good thing. It looks as though her staff are the only ones celebrating her 75th birthday. And one of the saddest moments in the film is when she says she has probably only three friends whom she can call to share a piece of good news.
And so it’s work, work and more work for Joan, who is perhaps just as driven as the legendary Martha. From from Florida to Connecticut to the backwoods of Wisconsin, plane to plane, convention hall to casino to QVC to shill the jewelry that makes her millions, despite the indignities, humiliation and exhaustion, Joan soldiers on.
Joan is all the things we young Barnard women abhorred back in the day: rude, obnoxious, offensive, grotesque. But she is also a woman who recognized what she needed and went out to get it. Self-made, self-perpetuating, hard-working and indefatigable, Joan Rivers is a force to be reckoned with, indeed a piece of work.