(2010)3.5Mark DemingFor some kinds of people, there is no greater poison than to be ignored, and in the documentary Joan Rivers: A Piece of Work, we spend just short of 90 minutes watching a textbook example of this personality type in action. Joan Rivers has been a standup comic and actress since the late '50s, but in this film, as Rivers works her way through her 76th year of life, she's grimly determined to stay in the spotlight and remain one of the top women in comedy despite age, competition, and the changing shape of show business, and much of the time it seems she doesn't care what her audience thinks of her just as long as they're paying attention.
Filmmakers Ricki Stern, Annie Sundberg, and their crew spent a year following Rivers, and though the movie takes a look back at her early days in show business, her marriage to husband and business partner Edgar Rosenberg, her short-lived talk show and how it destroyed her friendship with Johnny Carson, and her relationship with her daughter, Melissa Rivers, it doesn't take long to realize Rivers isn't much on looking back. In her interviews with Stern and her banter with everyone around her, Rivers is fearlessly, brutally honest, and her focus is almost invariably on her next gig and keeping her schedule busy. Rivers confesses to being a workaholic early on in A Piece of Work, and she's clearly not someone who is happy when she's idle; during business negotiations, she repeatedly tells anyone and everyone that she'll take nearly any gig and endorse any product as long as the pay is good and she's treated reasonably well. The film catches her taking a few jobs she clearly thinks are beneath her -- a comedy roast in her "honor" for cable television, playing a casino in Wisconsin (where after telling a joke about Helen Keller she's viciously heckled by a man who says his child is deaf), and appearing on The Celebrity Apprentice alongside Donald Trump and a handful of "F-list" semi-notables -- but she dives into them with the same vigor and iron determination that she devotes to her dream project, an autobiographical play about her life and career. For Rivers, nothing matters as much as the work, especially if she's getting a paycheck and there's an audience.
There doesn't seem to be much distance between Joan Rivers' on-stage persona and the person we see talking with her friends, family, and business associates -- except for a Thanksgiving Day sequence in which she delivers meals for a charity group and then enjoys a big dinner with her loved ones, the barbed-tongued comic on-stage is only a more emphatic version of the woman off-stage. As a consequence, your enjoyment of Joan Rivers: A Piece of Work will have even more than you might imagine to do with your appreciation for her comedy, which is documented both in large stage appearances and small workshop gigs at a New York club called The Cutting Room, where she test-drives new material. Time has in no way mellowed Rivers, and her gleefully offensive and often sexually charged material is ruder that what you might expect from a comic a third her age. And Rivers isn't shy about expressing her opinions of others -- more than once, she spitefully mentions Kathy Griffin, whom she clearly regards as a more successful and younger rival, and when Rivers adds that she hates being told that she opened doors for others as she's still trying to open doors for herself, it seems like some sort of punch line when Griffin herself appears a few minutes later, enthusiastically discussing her admiration for Rivers as a groundbreaker and an inspiration.
But if it's sometimes hard to like the woman at the center of Joan Rivers: A Piece of Work, it's harder not to admire her. Rivers refuses to censor herself, she's as honest as the day is long, and her commitment to her craft is total. Rivers is a woman who has gotten where she is through tireless hard work and passionate belief in herself (despite frequently expressed anxieties about her appearance, her talent, and her place as a woman in showbiz), and the movie makes it obvious that as long as she draws breath, she isn't about to give up on her career and her desire to keep moving forward. Stern and Sundberg's portrait of Rivers suits its subject well -- it's blunt, unafraid, and often bitterly funny, and makes its admiration for Rivers clear while harboring no illusions about her.
Joan Rivers launched her career as a standup comic in the early '60s, a time when female comedians were few and far between, and after several years of working nightclubs to unresponsive audiences, she was booked on The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson in 1965 and soon became one of the most successful comedy acts in the nation. Since then, Rivers has hosted several TV talk shows, written best-selling books, directed a feature film, launched a line of jewelry, and kept up a busy schedule of personal appearances, determined to hold on to her stardom regardless of the fickle winds of show business. Filmmakers Ricki Stern and Annie Sundberg followed Rivers through a typically eventful year in her life, and in Joan Rivers: A Piece of Work, they offer a look at the woman behind the laughter as she struggles to stay in the spotlight, works on new material, launches a one-woman show in the United Kingdom that doesn't fare as well as she hopes, takes a chance as a participant on a reality TV show, and ponders her career in show business at the age of 75. Joan Rivers: A Piece of Work received its world premiere at the 2010 Sundance Film Festival.