Director: Edgar Cooper Endicott; Cast: Joan Rosenberg (AKA Joan Rivers), Melissa Rosenberg (AKA Melissa Rivers)
“Green Valley is where the stars used to live, back when this was the middle of nowhere,” says Melissa Rosenberg from the driver’s seat, heading for the gash of green running through the desert sprawl of southeast Las Vegas. “This was their escape from the Strip.” She points out who lived where: Johnny Carson’s Tudor style mansion, the boxy bungalow of Red Foxx, Wayne Newton’s ranch, recently sold and renamed. “And of course,” she says, pulling into the half-empty parking lot of a squat beige stucco assisted living facility, “let’s not forget my mother.”
Joan Rosenberg has Alzheimer’s, but she doesn’t want to talk about it. “Let me forget so I don’t have to remember to kill myself,” she says, speaking freely to the camera. “I’ll kill myself if I have to listen to that word one more time.”
“That’s not funny,” says her daughter.
“What’s not funny?”
And there’s the bind: is Melissa supposed to remind her of what she just said—Alzheimer’s, suicide—so that she can be told not to say it again?
It’s so believable that it begs the question of whether a person with dementia can really consent to being filmed like this. Melissa, Joan’s daughter, seems to think it’s all fair game. She asks her mother on camera, repeatedly, if she’s okay with being recorded, and Joan always says yes (often in some vulgar way: “Are you asking to see my tits? I hope you brought a long-angle lens.”). But it’s unsettling. There are times when Joan obviously doesn’t remember that there’s a camera recording her. Either that, or she’s a really, really good actor.
There is something weirdly familiar about this mother and this daughter. If you didn’t know beforehand, it might take you a while to realize that Joan Rosenberg is Joan Rivers, and Melissa Rosenberg is her daughter, Melissa Rivers. Whether you love them or hate them or really don’t care, whether you’ve ever watched their scripted reality show on TV or seen them on Celebrity Apprentice, chances are good you’re familiar enough with them by cultural osmosis to recognize that something is odd here. Because even though it isn’t pure fiction, this also isn’t really them—the Joan in a brown Chico’s track suit and flip-flops is certainly not Joan Rivers, the diva, the icon… and yet, when she opens her mouth, the bilious fury is unmistakable. It’s uncanny. She looks ghastly, and Melissa looks a bit rough (much more Vegas than LA here), but they’re sincere, and there is a precedent. Few might remember that after the suicide of Joan’s husband, Edgar Rosenberg, which devastated both mother and daughter, they did something strange and cathartic: they made a TV movie together about the suicide, about therapy, about coping, in which they played themselves. “Walking through it again mended the relationship,” Joan has said. With Life is Mean, they’re doing something similar, even if it’s not clear why. (Melissa’s son, Connor, is listed as the director, though in real life—or at least on reality TV—Melissa was furious with Joan for trying to break him into the business.)
This is a glimpse of what might have happened if Joan Rivers hadn’t marshaled her drive and endurance—legendary, at this point—and scraped her way through troubles that would have ruined most people. This is her life if she’d retired after being permanently blacklisted by her old mentor, Johnny Carson, and then being fired from her talk show, if she’d holed up in Las Vegas after losing her beloved husband and business partner and winding up broke. The contrast is clear between this Joan and the one in sequins and boas, with platinum hair and a sculpted face. The difference is that this Joan never bounced back, and if you’ve ever wished Joan Rivers would just shut the fuck up and go away, you may be ashamed of yourself when you see this alternative: life in a medium-bleak assisted living facility out in the rocky desert, so close but so far from the big showrooms she’d once filled to capacity. This Joan is an intelligent, frustrated woman with a failed career she can’t bear to speak about.
She is also a blisteringly foul-mouthed bitch, and really, there is nothing funny here. But at the same time, there is something pretty funny here. It’s not the kind of funny that makes you laugh, but it’s commendable, even—or especially—if you loathe the grating trademark humor. This Joan is unkempt and brunette, and she’s uncooperative when it comes to the details of grooming. She refuses to bathe because she’s been forbidden to take showers by herself. (Her reenactment of being showered and dressed by the petite Filipina caregiver is horribly funny: “She went for my vulva with the bar of soap – that’s when I knew this place really was like prison.”) It’s for her own good, because she’s fallen, more than once, judging from the bruises on her arms and face. (Her sarcastic rendering of “Help, I’ve fallen and I can’t get up” is the kind of thing you hate yourself for laughing at… let’s call it whistling at the devil.) Dignity, like health, is fragile, so it’s not funny when she projectile vomits unexpectedly, but it is funny, sort of, when she tells the caregiver she hates that she’s drunk on mouthwash and that she may have shat the bed. Ooopsie! It’s not funny when she’s taken to the emergency room, where a CAT scan reveals severe bleeding in her brain, probably from a fall—when? who knows—though it is funny when she tries to keep strangers from sitting near her in the Emergency Room. (“I just hate the smell of old people,” she says. “And I hate blind people—they’re so selfish. When was the last time you got a compliment from a blind person?”) It is definitely not funny when, post-surgery, Joan has a bout of ICU psychosis and repeatedly tries to pull out the drainage tube embedded in her brain. She tugs at it every few minutes, all night long, never remembering why it’s there. Should you laugh to keep from crying, or should you cry because you were laughing earlier? Her daughter remains calm throughout, but, good acting aside, she looks deeply shaken.
“Why is it no one thinks of comedians as good actresses?” asks Rivers in season four, episode two of their scripted reality show, in which she contemplates the stereotypical expectations people have about her. Wanting more work, she gets a “makeunder” in hopes of winning serious dramatic parts, and it is a deep moment indeed when she peels off her false eyelashes, wipes away her lipstick, takes off her jewelry, and sits unprotected from the eyes of watchers who have insulted her looks for so many years. Of course it’s then brutally, terribly funny when she puts on “hospital pants and a simple absorbent shirt” and goes out to change public perceptions by turning up in a busy area of Hollywood on a beeping scooter, chasing early bird specials and taking photos with fans. “I decide my image,” she says to her furious daughter. “I created Joan Rivers. Joan Rivers created Joan Rivers.” There are more defenseless, funny, deep moments—a whole lot of them—in the documentary “Piece of Work,” which begins with more scenes of her bare face as she’s getting ready to go onstage. (“It’s really scary when you see yourself without any makeup,” she says. “Who is that person?”) Comedy may pay the bills, but the pain when her show in London doesn’t garner good enough reviews for a New York run is clear and crushing. It’s obvious that the public doesn’t think of her as a playwright, actress (her term), thespian, or Tony award-nominee. “But I know I’m an actress,” she says. “It’s all about acting. My career is an actress’s career. And I’ve played a comedian. But it’s over… no one will ever take me seriously as an actress.”
People will, though, if they make it to the gory end of Life is Mean. After a week of confinement in the hospital, Joan Rosenberg is brought back “home” to her room in the assisted living facility. She’s thin and physically weak. She touches her scalp, then examines her incision in the mirror; her hair has been shaved and she has no idea where she got those staples in her head. Her eyes are bloodshot, but alert, and suddenly the violence of whatever she’s feeling is frightening, not because it’s unexpected, but because rage and grief are exactly the right response to what’s going on in the lives of either Joan. (For the record, her bare face is pale and smooth and beautiful, and only an asshole would revert to clichéd criticism of her looks in that unguarded moment. If you can feel for Mickey Rourke in The Wrestler, you can do it here, too.) Life is Mean is probably the most piercingly existential film of the last decade—and it probably won’t get half the serious attention it deserves.
Maile Chapman is the author of the novel Your Presence Is Requested At Suvanto. She lives in Las Vegas.