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The Career

Documentary gets under the skin of the hardest working woman in show business

Kathy Griffin is not Joan Rivers' daughter but wants to suckle on her career.

By Joe MacLeod | Posted 7/28/2010

For starters, in this absorbing look at a year in the life, comedienne Joan Rivers calls her daughter Melissa a "stupid fucking cunt." Onstage in her act, of course. It's all about the act, it's still a big part of her decades-long career (since 1966), which at this point--thanks to a relentless work ethic--has involved stage plays, movie productions, countless club dates and television appearances, red-carpet interviews and vicious celebrity fashion-criticism shows on cable, shows on deep cable (TV Guide Channel, anyone?), hawking her line of jewelry on the QVC shopping channel on less-deep cable, showing up on Celebrity Apprentice to get the taste of Johnny Carson Tonight Show-era NBC out of her soul, and basically doing whatever, whenever: cruise ship appearance, corporate show, spokesperson for a "male enhancement" product, you name it. Make 'em laugh. Show Business.

According to Ms. Rivers--who turned 75 as this movie was being produced--her career is what her life is all about, until she drops. There's some stuff here about life outside of show business, some do-gooding and a Thanksgiving gathering, but after you get a look at her massive card-catalog joke file, you'll suss right away this documentary is part of the continuity of a career. "The Career" as she calls it, a thing likened to a living, breathing member of the family according to her daughter, the inspiration for the stand-up C-bomb, reportedly for turning down a six-figure offer from Playboy to appear topless, much to the putative dismay of her bread-winner mom--who doesn't turn down anything, because she likes to live well: according to Joan, like Marie Antoinette "if she had money"; seriously, you'll see.

And Rivers has got a pile of employees and family members to carry, which helps to explain how this unsettlingly, unflinchingly honest, no-makeup-and-all examination of her life got produced, with very few subjects off limits. Included: all the plastic surgery (there's still a genuinely charming person in there), some career lows past and recent (such as the quiet failure of a stage production headed for Broadway), the reality of Ms. River's relationship with her late husband, the circumstances of his death, and skating around the edges of the personal problems of a longtime business associate and family friend, who for Rivers is one of the few people left who has any memory of what exactly Joan Rivers has been through, since the mid-'60s. She started out as a highly driven performer who was certain of becoming an actress and just paying the bills with comedy until she got a break and ended up on The Tonight Show, earning the praise of king (and queen)-maker Carson and eventually rising to become the permanent guest host until The Career made a decision that turned out to be painful--almost as painful as getting celebrity roasted on Comedy Central, a process described by Ms. Rivers as "disgusting--but the money is very good," in a chat with comedian Kathy Griffin, who is basically, obviously, the next Joan Rivers, and sees Rivers as the heir to Phyllis Diller and, before her, Moms Mabley.

But it's Griffin taking club dates and the Gays away from Joan, getting the gig to emcee the roast and describing it to Joan as "not disgusting, it is an honor, I'm telling you . . . the money is good--which is an honor." After which, at the roast of Joan Rivers, 45-plus years in the business, you witness a few choice zingers, such as "how much worse could your real face look than that clown mask you've had welded on to your head." That's entertainment, and the money is very good.

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