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Joan Rivers in "Joan Rivers: A Piece of Work"
Joan Rivers in "Joan Rivers: A Piece of Work"

Lynn Crosbie: Pop Rocks

Joan Rivers: gifted and alone Add to ...

It's like watching Milton Berle perform in a meat dress.

Who knew that 75-year-old comic Joan Rivers - in her new-to-DVD biopic - worked blue? There is not one joke she makes about her daughter's offer to model for Playboy in the opening scene of Joan Rivers: A Piece of Work that I can repeat, and other critics faced the same problem when the documentary was shut out of the Oscars' short list.

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Rivers has said she is angry that the film wasn't nominated, but she's not chummy with Hollywood's elite and seems close only to her family, assistant and charity (God's Love We Deliver, an organization that tailor-makes and delivers meals to people too ill to cook or shop).

And to Kathy Griffin, her hand-picked nemesis: One feels the most tenderness for Rivers, seeing, in the film, how ludicrous is her sense of the comedy scene and its players. In her frantically busy, fairly isolated life, Griffin is a superstar. Then Don Rickles, then Garry Shandling.

Hollywood's elite has not embraced her since her feud with Johnny Carson, which began when Rivers left her post as The Tonight Show's permanent guest host for her own late-night show on Fox. Carson's reaction was draconian: When she told him her news, he slammed the phone down and never spoke to her again.

The show was a disaster - I remember watching her kiting jokes about bumper stickers, drenched in flop sweat, before switching channels. And her husband, the show's producer and her long-time business partner, killed himself in 1987 after he was fired by the network. "From the humiliation," Rivers has always maintained.

His death, and her daughter Melissa's and her own reaction to this tragic event was documented in the bizarre 1994 made-for-TV film Tears and Laughter: The Joan and Melissa Rivers Story. And it is this kind of hack work, this bizarre candour, that has helped to hinder a career that should be heralded by - as the tart blonde herself says - courageous, persistent and, let us not forget, path-carving women everywhere.

The documentary shows old clips of Rivers, young and pregnant in cute little frocks, telling raunchy abortion jokes, jokes that would attach a stigma to her work that still remains. Note the scene in which a furious man violently heckles her for riffing on deafness at some Podunk club. (Would he have been so emboldened if she were a man?) At any rate, she shreds him and carries on, but this scene reveals a tiny bit, and yet enough, of what it's like to be gifted, alone and addicted to performing at an advancing age.

In fact, it is only Griffin and Rickles who come close to celebrating Rivers properly in interviews. Griffin compares her to Moms Mabley and Phyllis Diller; Rickles notes her "outstanding timing."

In her work, definitely. In her life, not so much. It would be decades before an audience could countenance a foul-mouthed female comic, and still, so few exist. (It is not feminine to compare one's wayward lady parts to a grey bunny slipper, and that is that.)

And Rivers, an old-style comic who keeps index cards of bada-boom jokes in a huge filing cabinet, is politically volatile. In the film, she compares Michelle Obama's style to Jackie O.'s with shocking and crude élan as her assistants groan in distaste.

Rivers does not seem to care what people think: Having cut her teeth in tough clubs in Greenwich Village, she seems impervious to the pop world's cynical opinions, which she wisely attributes to her having long been pigeonholed, among the elite, as a "Borscht Belt" comic.

But watch her face as the male comics at the Friars Club Roast excoriate her "clown mask."

"No man has ever called me beautiful," she quietly notes earlier in the film, and here lays bare the woman beneath the hard, brittle carapace.

The documentary, her big victory on Celebrity Apprentice ("Meh, it's not the Oscars, but still," she is heard saying), a rush of publicity and more have filled up her date book, the empty sight of which, she says, scares her to death.

I never liked Rivers until I saw this film: She is a brilliant comic, possessed of an inspiring heart. When she delivers food to a sick woman in Manhattan, she shows genuine interest in her photography, then goes home to Google her.

I did the same: It was the great cult flâneuse Flo Fox, a little down but not out. Quite a lot like her friend in all the vulgar fur and flash, the great Joan Rivers.

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