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Last night, my best friend and I went to see a new documentary, Joan Rivers: A Piece of Work. An in-depth look at the past year of Rivers’s life, interspersed with footage from her decades-long career and interviews with family and friends, the film was enlightening in the way that intensive examinations of the day-to-day existence of celebrities generally are.
Being famous is often quite unpleasant; the entertainment business is incredibly damaging; celebs cry, too, and so on. But what makes this movie particularly interesting is that it’s a familiar story told about an unfamiliar subject: an older woman.
While visiting my mother a few weeks ago, I rented Crazy Heart, a movie about an old, past his prime musician struggling to keep his career vaguely afloat. We decided that it reminded us of The Wrestler, a movie about an old, past his prime wrestler struggling to keep his career vaguely afloat. The trend doesn’t end there; a few minutes thought produces any number of recent films about older men fighting to figure out where they now fit in the world (Gran Torino, Harry Brown, even terrible broad comedies like Old Dogs).
There’s nothing wrong with these movies existing, of course. Several of them are even excellent. But as older men manage to stake out their place in the youth- and beauty-dominated film industry, it becomes ever clearer how rarely older women are presented as main characters of stories, how rarely their lives are depicted as complex and still developing.
For the numerous easy jokes one can make about Joan Rivers, she is a 77-year-old female comedian and actress who has been working steadily since the 1960s. After struggles with her career drove her manager husband to suicide in 1987, she pushed herself onward, reinventing herself as a red carpet staple. The documentary shows us a woman who has no desire or even ability to retire, who is determined to continue working to support herself and her many dependents for as long as she possibly can. This is not a woman who has settled comfortably into old age but a woman who is still striving, still discontent.
People over the age of 60 in popular culture, especially women, are generally regulated to being kindly advice givers, crotchety neighbors and relatives, or tragic tales of illness. Perhaps this is one of the reasons why so many women are so desperate to avoid all signs of aging; they know that once they reach a certain age, their lives will cease to be considered interesting and they will cease to be considered a real player in the world.
Though Joan Rivers is hardly a great example of growing older gracefully or even naturally, in her documentary she provides a powerful image of a woman growing older vibrantly. Maybe if we had more depictions like this in our films and on our televisions, the idea of aging would be less terrifying, less linked to becoming irrelevant.
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Last reviewed: 2 Jul 2010