Joan Rivers: A Piece of Work ★★★★½
(USA, 84 min)
Dir: Ricki Stern & Anita Sundberg
Featuring: Joan Rivers, Billy Sameth, Larry Thompson, Melissa Rivers, Kathy Griffin.
Joan Rivers: A Piece of Work opens with a startling shot. Rivers, the aged comedienne, is framed in close-up: she’s naked – not literally, but she doesn’t have any make-up on. As her crew began to apply her face during the opening credits, I rolled my eyes and assumed that this was to be a self-indulgent portrait of a woman I find funny, but often presume to be gaudy and classless. I may have never been so wrong in my judgement.
Later on in the film, there’s a similarly lengthy sequence in which Joan gets herself ready to perform. At this point, though, one realizes that she’s preparing for battle. When she gets in front of her audience and lets her quick acerbic wit take control, she’s on fire. One would never guess that this is a woman who struggles to stay on top.
That’s what’s so fascinating about Joan Rivers: A Piece of Work. The documentary isn’t one of those schmaltzy “warts and all” celebrity life stories that we’re all used to seeing in the Fall awards season. Rather, the whole film is warts. Rivers’ career has seen numerous hard knocks, but she’s fearlessly nipped and tucked every punch that’s been thrown at her, and she’s hit back just as hard. Moreover, Rivers looks back on the highs and lows of her career with a frankness that’s refreshing, but it also offers extraordinary insight into how she has managed to maintain such an unrivalled comic edge throughout her four decades in the entertainment industry.
Particularly when the film looks at how Rivers’ friend and mentor, Johnny Carson, stabbed her in the back when she was on the cusp of a career high, it delivers a rather brilliant deconstruction of the cruelty of the industry. Clearly, Joan Rivers was, and still is, a woman who worked her ass off to get ahead, only to have the door slammed back on her when it came time to get her fair share. It’s shocking what the legendary performer is still willing to do in order to pay the bills. The film is also careful to reveal that Joan Rivers’ workalholism is part of her own doing, as she refuses to scale back on her lavish lifestyle. (She has a marble phone.) At the same time, it’s quite inspiring to see that Rivers hasn’t turned her back on her roots: she still gets a thrill out of doing a stand-up act.
The film features numerous scenes of Joan doing her thing. Her routines are funnier than riffs by most of her contemporaries. As well as showing Rivers’ perseverance and superior performative skills, the stand-up scenes do a really good job of portraying the double standards that people have against female performers. In one sequence, Rivers acknowledges some jitters about performing before a Right-leaning Wisconsin audience. Onstage, she cracks a joke about how much she hates loud kids and says the only kid she could have ever loved was Helen Keller. She does a funny pantomime of deafness to drive the point home, except that she’s interrupted by someone who yells, “That isn’t funny if you have a deaf son!” Rivers immediately shoots back at the heckler with quick her wit. Afterwards, she’s gracious and apologetic, but she looks a little flustered, too.
As the film chronicles a year in the life of Joan Rivers as she passes her 75th birthday, directors Ricki Stern & Anita Sundberg do an amazing job of covering her personal life and career from every angle. In doing so, they create one of the most intimate, revealing, and fascinating profiles of not only a celebrity, but of celebrity itself. Joan Rivers is a beautiful piece of work: I laughed, I cried, I loved it.
*Photos courtesy eOne Films.