Whether her humor has been directed at herself over the years or outward, bluntness and honesty are Joan Rivers’ trademarks. It shouldn’t be a surprise then that a documentary about a year in her life would be equally direct, but when we see her 76-year-old, surgery-altered face in close up before the layers of daily makeup are applied, it’s a little shocking. It’s also a hint that we’re about to see a side of Rivers we haven’t really seen before. Alternately moving and hilarious, Joan Rivers: A Piece of Work touches on big topics like the fear of aging and of being a woman in a male dominated industry, but it’s also a more personal look at what drives one woman to seek out a life on stage in front of an audience and at what cost.
Filmmakers Ricki Stern and Annie Sundberg alternate between archival footage, direct interviews with Rivers and the people closest to her, and fly-on-the-wall observations of the comedienne as she goes about her days, booking and performing stand up gigs in tiny clubs, hawking her wares on QVC or working on an autobiographical play about her life. Along the way we get the highlights and lowlights of Rivers’ life and career over her 50 plus years in the entertainment industry; most importantly her rise and eventual falling out with mentor Johnny Carson and her subsequent ill-fated late night talk show which led to the death of her husband Edgar and put her career into a tailspin from which she’s never completely recovered. What finally emerges is the picture of a completely career-driven woman who could probably retire comfortably but who would rather die than stop clawing and fighting.
One area that is only touched on lightly is the extreme amount of plastic surgery Rivers has undergone over the years. The reasons for it are never explicitly stated, yet everything we learn about her points to a deep insecurity that has not only fueled her great success, it has also left her feeling empty, inadequate and unsatisfied. It’s admirable to see how much drive and vigor Rivers still has at 76, but it’s also unsettling to see the emptiness that feeds it. Whether she’s getting heckled at a club in Nowheresville Wisconsin, being humiliated at a celebrity roast on national television or debasing herself on a run of Celebrity Apprentice (the only way she could get back on NBC, the network that disowned her after the Carson fiasco), there seems to be nothing Rivers won’t do to stake out her little corner of the spotlight. A large part of her motivation is money, but in her world, how much you get paid is a function of how much you’re loved.
It’s all a little depressing, but at the same time Rivers is still very funny and even more crude and irascible. She does a bit about her daughter Melissa’s resistance to pose topless in Playboy for example that is hilarious and all the more shocking coming out of the mouth of a mother. Rivers’ omnipresent humor protects her even as it flows forth from the darkest parts of her personality and no subject is sacred as she bluntly explains to the Wisconsin heckler.
If you only know Rivers from her famously acerbic red carpet commentary on E! or the TV Guide Channel in the 1990s, A Piece of Work offers a surprising side of a familiar face. For those of us who remember her in her heyday, it’s a partially comforting reminder of what we always liked about her before the plastic surgery and cheesy TV appearances. Though her naked desperation to succeed disturbs, Joan is still Joan. She’s as funny as ever and clearly will be for as long as she can find an audience.
Joan Rivers: A Piece of Work. USA 2010. Written and directed by Ricki Stern and Annie Sundberg. Cinematography by Charles Miller with additional cinematography by Seth Keal, Guy Mossman and William Rexer II. Music score composed by Paul Brill. Edited by Penelope Falk. With Joan Rivers, Kathy Griffin, Melissa Rivers, Jon Stewart, Richard Belzer, Denis Leary, Gary Shandling, Lily Tomlin, Bill Maher, Brad Garrett and Don Rickles. 1 hour 24 minutes. MPAA rated R for language and sexual humor. 4 stars (out of 5)
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Tags: Annie Sundberg, Bill Maher, Brad Garrett, Charles Miller, Denis Leary, Don Rickles, Gary Shandling, Guy Mossman, Joan Rivers, Joan Rivers - A Piece of Work, Jon Stewart, Kathy Griffin, Lily Tomlin, Melissa Rivers, Paul Brill, Penelope Falk, Richard Belzer, Ricki Stern, Seth Keal, William Rexer II