Coverage of the death of American comedian Joan Rivers provided the startling revelation that Rivers was 81 years old. Despite her age she didn’t look it, thanks to the doctors who made her “the icon of modern plastic surgery”. But as film critic Roger Ebert once wrote of Rivers’ surgery, “show business is cruel and eats its old, and you do what you have to do.”
It’s not just about age. Actress Shirley Temple also died this year at the age of 85, yet we place her career in a different era from that of Joan Rivers. In fact, despite being only five years older, Temple’s film career ended almost a decade before Rivers began to perform on stage in 1959. Notwithstanding Temple’s subsequent work as a US diplomat, we perceive the two performers as belonging to totally different eras. The child actress of the 1930s is associated with the wartime travails of “The Greatest Generation”, while Rivers’ more enduring career and age-defying appearance extended right up to the point of her death.
That show business is cruel and eats its old is not a new observation. Amidst the reflections on Rivers’ career and significance, one of the recurring themes is that Rivers achieved the unachievable: remaining successful and relevant as an ageing woman in Hollywood.
But Rivers achieved this feat by embracing a business model and persona that took her where others were unwilling to go. The “court jester” act is an all-or-nothing gig, and by all accounts Rivers played it to the full, bringing her often vulgar comedy to bear on herself as frequently as her celebrity targets, being wilfully provocative and offensive for the sake of a laugh, and making personal tragedy such as the suicide of her husband seem just another part of the act. Her efforts earned her a reported net worth of US$150 million, and a much publicised outpouring of affection from friends, family and fans at the news of her death.
At face value we might think more highly of Shirley Temple Black, getting out of show business at an early age and devoting herself to her family and public service, while Joan Rivers clung to her performance career if not to the bitter end, at least to the very end. Yet Rivers was tough, and even those who found her humour utterly beyond the pale must give at least grudging respect for her accomplishments in an industry averse to women who fall outside of a narrow set of criteria beginning with youth, beauty, and sex appeal. As a Vogue obituary for Rivers observed:
“Rivers’s face, her lifestyle, her interests make the most sense as a long performance piece, a way of taking the expectations for someone of her generation and carrying them to extremes. Look at what the world makes an ambitious woman do in order to be happy, she seemed to want to say.”
It’s hard to judge someone’s accomplishments without understanding the entire context of their private lives, especially in the case of performers who adopt an intentionally distasteful, vulgar, or offensive style. It’s tempting to dismiss celebrities whose acts we don’t like as having no real creative merit, as having achieved their fame through unworthy methods such as cheap shots and sensationalism.
But by directing those cheap shots at herself, being more crude and insulting to herself than any critic could afford to be, Rivers became immune to attack. And by enduring for so long she stood apart from lesser performers who lacked the talent to underwrite the shtick.
Show business may eat its old, but Joan Rivers had found a way to make herself inedible. Was it worth it? We all may find ourselves at times in industries, organisations, or subcultures where fitting in, being successful, or merely surviving require extreme measures that are not in our own long-term interest.
In this regard, the movie industry’s treatment of its female stars is notorious, with observers noting “Hollywood’s dual requirement to look amazing post-60 while never signaling that they’ve worked at it.” Cosmetic surgery remains a major ethical and anthropological issue in principle, let alone in the extremes of practice apparently routine in Hollywood. In an industry where comedian Ellen DeGeneres (herself indebted to “pioneer” Rivers) can publicly liken 67-year-old veteran performer Liza Minnelli’s appearance to that of a transvestite impersonator, it makes a great deal of sense for Rivers to have made a point of getting the cruellest jokes in first at her own expense. If people are going to laugh at you, it might as well be on your own terms.
One of the critiques of cosmetic surgery is that it undermines the integrity of one’s appearance – the degree to which a person’s true character is reflected in his face. In the words of George Orwell’s famous aphorism “At 50, everyone has the face he deserves.”
But character is more than half the equation, the part of the iceberg under the surface, and one can only wonder what effect it would have to adopt a style like Rivers over so many years, to survive at a cost to one’s own dignity and, at least in part, by means of tearing others down for laughter and applause.
In one sense Joan Rivers was clearly victorious: she ended her career on top having carved out a niche for herself against all the challenges of being an ageing woman in show business. But in other ways it may have been a Pyrrhic victory, an achievement undermined by the personal costs it entailed, and, perhaps, the kind of person one must become in order to win.
On a minor level we are all faced with the choice to seek victory by sacrificing parts of our own selves, wittingly or unwittingly, to prove ourselves to others or just to get by, for vindication or sometimes even for vengeance. When it comes to worldly pursuits, the temptation to ‘do what you have to do’ can be overwhelming. Yet surely these are all ultimately distractions when compared with our underlying goal, the goal that ought to be foremost in our minds, of becoming the ideal version of ourselves? Worldly distractions aside, the real challenge lies in deciding the kind of person you ultimately wish to be.
Zac Alstin is a freelance writer living in Adelaide, South Australia. He blogs at zacalstin.com.