Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Tears and Laughter: The Joan and Melissa Rivers Story (1994) TV Movie

TV Weekend; Grieving Over, It's On With the Show

Published: May 13, 1994

She began as a comic in clubs and she is now, with an occasional pause for a performance gig, a jewelry saleswoman on television. Joan Rivers has a habit, often unfortunate, of doing the unexpected. On Sunday night on NBC, she does what could easily be construed as the unthinkable. She stars in a movie about the aftermath of the 1987 suicide of her husband, Edgar Rosenberg. The co-star of "Tears and Laughter: The Joan and Melissa Rivers Story" is, yes, Joan's daughter, Melissa. Self-indulgence and promotion evidently know no bounds in the Rivers universe.

In the months before his death in a hotel room, Edgar Rosenberg had triple bypass heart surgery and was dismissed from Fox Broadcasting after the cancellation of his wife's talk show.

Ensconced in a hospital for cosmetic liposuction, Joan concedes, just before getting news of the suicide, "You know, our last conversation wasn't such a hot one." Later, talking to her husband's body in a funeral home, she insists that "we could have worked things out; we're a team." Still later, dragging Mom to her own psychiatrist, Melissa charges Joan with "doing your club act 10 minutes after the funeral."

Mother and daughter find themselves far more interesting than the dead man. Melissa, or Missy, cries, "He's never going to get to see me graduate, never going to see my children!" "Me" is usually the operative word. Joan is furious with Edgar for deserting her, but she never stops polishing his image, noting that he was "very English, smart, sophisticated" and that he would insist on "hankies" when "everybody else used Kleenex." Class will out.

The crux of the movie is a growing estrangement between Joan, who refuses to play the grieving "widow on the hill," and an angry Melissa, who drifts into an affair at the University of Pennsylvania with a drug addict who abuses her (Mark Kiely). Needless to say, in his lucid moments the young man is tall, very rich and irresistibly charming. After several breakups and reunions, the relationship becomes a plot-line bore.

Joan gets in her professional licks. When she is initially unable to find work, an agent tells her, "Johnny Carson convinced America you're evil." Not quite. America may have decided that there is still such a thing as loyalty, maybe even honor. But "Tears and Laughter" is crammed with embarrassments, not least Joan and Melissa arriving too late for a temple memorial service for Edgar. Or there's Joan after the funeral, insisting that everybody was there, Cher, Roddy McDowall, and then muttering, "Elizabeth Taylor called."

Even with generously positive spins, the Rivers family life comes off as rather skimpy. In one stretch for sentiment, Joan explains: "I miss the three of us, standing on line at a restaurant, just being a family." So much for home and hearth. On an audiotape left to his wife, Edgar pinpointed the heart of the Joan Rivers phenomenon: "You're a survivor." She will no doubt survive this ill-conceived exercise.

Tears and Laughter The Joan and Melissa Rivers Story NBC, Sunday at 9 P.M. (Channel 4 in New York) Directed by Oz Scott; written by Susan Rice; director of photography, David Geddes; production designer, Chris August; produced by Tom Rowe and George Horie for Davis Entertainment; Merrill Karpf and John Davis, executive producers.

Tears and Laughter: The Joan and Melissa Rivers Story (1994) TV Movie
Cast: Dorothy Lyman, Jerry Wasserman, Joan Rivers, Melissa Rivers, Rebecca Toolan, Sheila Moore

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