Ricki Stern met a legendary comedian through her family and decided that after making several documentaries on
serious issues like genocide ("The Devil Came on Horseback") that aiming her and codirector Anne Sundberg's
camera on a stand-up comic might be refreshing. For a year beginning on her 75th birthday, they watched a
woman who broke boundaries struggle to keep herself in the limelight in "Joan Rivers - A Piece of Work."
Joan Rivers is a polarizing performer, beloved by many but disliked too. Joan herself is riddled with
insecurities, always feeling like an outsider looking in. But from the very first frame, where Joan's face
is explored in extreme closeup as she's having her makeup applied, it is clear that the woman whose plastic
surgery is the butt of jokes will be laying herself bare and, whether you like her or not, she's sure to
impress you with her sheer drive. If you think you know who Joan Rivers is, Stern & Sundberg will give
you a different perception. Or two. Maybe three.
It is amazing that Joan allowed the camera to document her blotchy skin and bloodshot eyes because she
believes youth and beauty are essential to show business (she later allows herself to be filmed right after
having Botox injections). This dichotomy is part of what makes Rivers Rivers, though, and her looks will
be brought up several times - as Joan herself scoffs at Johnny Carson over a brains vs. beauty remark back
in the day and, in her mania to never turn down work, subjecting herself to a Comedy Central roast even though
she dreads the ever-present facelift jokes. (Ironically, the day after seeing this film, I opened a magazine
to find Joan's face front and center of a Snicker's ad that, of all things, makes a facelift joke.)
Of course, Joan isn't above making fun of herself. As the year-long journey begins, she's fretting about
the state of her date book compared to the previous year. When asked to look at it she demands sunglasses -
to protect her from the glare of the white empty pages. This from her long time manager who frustrates
her with his reliability and whom she will cry over when she is forced to dismiss him by the end of the film.
Joan introduces us to all those in her inner circle and its clear she considers them family. One of the
reasons she feels the need to work constantly is the care and feeding of her entourage, including the
private schools she sends their children to. Yes, she admits to liking living well and her New York
City apartment is large and ornately appointed. The irony is how little time she seems to spend there.
We follow Joan as she does stand-up in tiny dumps in the city to big halls in Wisconsin. (Coming back
from the latter we see Joan in the hotel lobby telling the clerk that no one, not even God, should be
rung through to her room before 6:30 a.m. The clock on the wall behind her shows us it's nearly 4 a.m.
already.) We follow to London where the play she's written and stars in about her life is received
warmly by audiences but tepidly by the critics. Joan frets that she just can't seem to get respect.
Looking back, we can see that her acceptance of a gig hosting her own late night talk show on Fox was
both ground-breaking and the worst decision of her life. Still the only woman to ever have hosted late
night, Joan, who was Carson's regular stand in on The Tonight Show, was startled that he considered
her decision a betrayal and never spoke to her again. With the show underperforming, Fox demanded that
she fire the producer - her husband Edgar. She refused, but the eventual cancellation of the show under
his command is what drove him to suicide. Joan was left with Melissa and a pile of debts. But here she
still is, triumphant by documentary's end with a win from Donald Trump's 'Celebrity Apprentice.'
The film is expertly put together from what must have had to be hundreds of hours of footage. Stern & Sundberg
have really gotten at what makes Joan tick - her career and the stage. And although she is fiercely
protective of her inner circle, daughter Melissa proffers that while mom thinks she would never compete
against her daughter, somehow her ambition would cause her to subconsciously do so anyway.
Joan Rivers - loving, profane, funny, insecure, tenacious as hell. This portrait is so well done, I'm
surprised she hasn't succeeded in turning it into a series. My one complaint? Only a glancing mention
of former red carpet coverage - after seeing snippets of her 76th year one can only conclude her cluelessness
was an act.
Robin did not see this film.
Reeling has been chosen as a Movie Review Query Engine Top Critic.