Joan Rivers is a sad woman. She is also a driven and determined woman. She’s an icon, a mother, a grandmother, a reality show winner, a running plastic surgery disaster (and running joke), a bitch, a “broad”, and a tireless champion for female comedians everywhere. But she is also bitter…and angry…and very, very fragile. At nearly 77 years of age, she maintains a lifestyle that many half her age could only dream of ever achieving while endlessly pimping herself to anyone and everyone that will have her. In the fascinating documentary by Ricki Stern and Anne Sundberg, Rivers gets a chance to set the record straight, so to speak. As she flaunts her opulent existence and discusses her struggles as a rising actress and comic, she also examines the heartbreak of losing a husband, a hot talk show career, and perhaps most importantly, her sense of self.
Divided up into two “acts”, we first witness the arguably hardest working (if most disgruntled) woman in show business prepping a new play. More or less a one woman show based on her life, she hopes a big opening in Ireland and a tryout on London’s West End will provide the impetus to bring the piece to Broadway. As with many things in her daily grind, thinks go from optimistic to complicated. The second section sees Rivers preparing to be on Donald Trump’s televised ego trip – Celebrity Apprentice – and the dilemma she faces when daughter Melissa joins the cast. Desperate to win (she believes it will bring her some much needed notoriety) but unsure about how to approach the offspring angle, every taping is a confusion of personal goals and family history. Along the way, we meet up with various members of her entourage and watch as she travels around the country, constantly worried about her place in the current pop culture conversation.
There are lots of ancillary issues along the way. Rivers is her own worst critic, taking any kind of disapproval with harsh personal (and as a result, professional) rebuke. She will close down an entire project or change an entire approach based on a single line in an otherwise favorable review. There is also a dysfunctional relationship with her manager, Billy Sammeth, a love/hate process which sees her hanging on his every suggestion and then scoffing when he won’t deliver or “can’t be found”. There’s the inner battle with Melissa, not explained exactly but readily apparent. Throughout her life, Rivers’ child has not felt the kind of career support she wanted, and as a result, believes her mother would easily sell her out as celebrate her accomplishments. Listening to the doc’s subject screed that she will “knock out her own teeth” to do a denture commercial supports the single focus approach perfectly.
But Rivers is not all angry old lady laments. She carries an entire mythology on her diminutive shoulders, a history that A Piece of Work explores brilliantly. Without going overboard into excessive detail or sweeping by in superficial lip service, we learn of her lifelong desire to perform, her belief in her acting (she declares herself an “actress playing a comedian”) and the rocky road to sudden, Tonight Show inspired stardom. Her relationship with Johnny Carson is not really explored – Rivers continues the company line about his vitriolic reaction to her mid ’80s bolt to Fox – and she does contend that NBC has her on a permanent late night blacklist since then. By the time we’ve rocketed past her second marriage to Edgar Rosenberg (and his eventual suicide), we’ve got a decent enough portrait: not too comprehensive, not too flippant.
Indeed, the most interesting thing about A Piece of Work is the amount of personal access Rivers allowed. We initially see her sans make-up, aging eyelids covered in tiny broken blood vessels, the minor wrinkles around the mouth giving away her medically enhanced attempts to cheat Father Time. If there is one area not fully addressed here, it’s the numerous trips to the doctor for an almost monstrous amount of physical augmentation. Rivers’ only response? Fame is a ‘young, beautiful person’s game’ and she now needs help staying relevant is such a contest. No childhood traumas (unless you believe her stand-up bits involving her looks and her hypercritical mother), no mangled mid-life crisis. As a woman whose tried to reinvent herself over and over again, it makes sense that she would take such a conceit to literal, physiological ends.
Yet the portrait is most complete when she is onstage. Throughout A Piece of Work, Stern and Sundberg follow the comedienne as she works various venues – from small clubs in Queens to massive Vegas-like arenas. For anyone who has grown up watching her exclusively through the censored veil of television, her current crudeness is enlightening. She is filthy, sailor mouth shoveling out a stream of obscenities not heard since Totie Fields. But she is also brilliant – witty and insightful, quick on her feet (as an angry Wisconsin heckler soon discovers) and topical without being dated. One of the best sequences in the film offers a glimpse into Rivers’ writing habits. All of her jokes are cataloged on note cards, filed away in a massive set of mini-cabinets in her home office. Even better, a pile of papers inside her DayRunner offers even more ideas. Even in her quieter moments, Rivers never remains still.
Functioning on a little less than three hours a sleep a night and driving herself far beyond the capacity of even the youngest performer, Joan Rivers appears to be running out the clock like it’s an actual foot race – and she doesn’t intend to lose. In fact, if she could find a way to keep the sweep second hand from making its ritualistic rounds, she’d gladly give a portion of her income to halt its endless marching. Some may consider her a dinosaur, a red carpet crawling, home shopping shilling relic who’s demotion to the backend of comedy’s folklore is long overdue. But that would be selling Joan Rivers short. She is indeed a piece of work. But it’s a product of her own design, and as long as someone is willing to buy it, she’ll be out there, making it available. It explains why she is so driven. It also explains why she is so sad.