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Entries in Joan Rivers: A Piece of Work (2010) (1)


Joan Rivers: A Piece of Work (2010) Home Video Review

Workin' Hard to Get My Fill

Before watching Ricki Stern and Anne Sundberg’s documentary Joan Rivers: A Piece of Work, I assumed that the title was a cute, easy reference to all the plastic surgery that the legendary comedienne has undergone in the last couple of decades.  The movie is full of Rivers’s appearances on 60s and 80s talk shows, where she looked young and healthy—not a knockout, mind you; her features were always oddly attractive—but in recent years she’s come to resemble Madame Tussaud’s wax portrait of herself (and on bad days, at harsh angles, something more akin to a Muppet).  In fact, the title doesn’t refer to the work she’s done on her face, but the work she’s done on her career.

The film follows Rivers for several months during an off year.  Her manager won’t return her phone calls and disappears for days on end.  The only stand-up gigs she can score are in Connecticut casinos and small Wisconsin comedy clubs. Yes, at seventy-five she still travels across the country to perform; her live act is much bluer than one would expect from watching her old Johnny Carson bits or the red carpet banter she creates with daughter Melissa.  Rivers rips apart aging and politics and the evil Hollywood machine with so many “cunts” and “assholes” you’d think she was an edgy twenty-something hipster putting on a dirty grandma act.  And she never stops thinking about the next job, or the next joke.

For me, the most shocking image in A Piece of Work isn’t the much-talked-about opening scene showing Rivers without makeup (which was so perfectly grotesque it called to mind both Chuck Close and Francis Bacon); it's the scene in her office where she sorts through her wall of card catalogues.  Each drawer is neatly labeled and contains hundreds of cards onto which she’s typed every joke from her forty-year comedy career.  From “Mr. T” to “Self-Loathing”, she has it all right at her disposal.

This constant need to be busy, to improve her craft day after day, strained her relationship with her daughter and her late husband, Edgar Rosenberg—whom she met while working on The Tonight Show.  Stern and Sundberg show Melissa and Joan together a few times, mostly towards the end as they team up to appear on The Celebrity Apprentice; but they don’t dive too far into the loving yet bizarre mother-daughter bond.  One gets the impression that Melissa went into show business just to see her mom more frequently, to get close to her; but because the documentary’s not about that we’re left to guess.  In one of the strangest decisions I’ve ever seen, the Rivers women played themselves in a TV movie about coping with Edgar’s suicide in the 1980s.

Joan Rivers is also a harsh perfectionist, as evidenced by her months-long undertaking to bring an autobiographical stage play to life.  After having been laughed out of New York decades before following a huge bomb that she and Edgar produced, she decides that the only way she’ll be able to get good notices in the states is to workshop the production in Europe.  So she brings the entire cast, crew and set to the Edinburgh Festival and puts it on.  The audiences love it, but to Rivers it’s just a warm-up to the more prestigious London crowds.  She gets a standing-o there, which a local tells us is not nearly as common in England as it is in the States, but Rivers can’t accept that as a true reading of the play’s success.  Her assistant reads the newspaper reviews aloud the next morning, and a devastated Rivers decides to scrap the play and not even bother trying to get it off the ground in America; and the write-ups weren’t even that bad.

This may sound crazy, but it’s the perfect illustration of artistic drive.  Joan Rivers embodies the obsessed creator, never wanting to sit still or take a break.  Early in the movie, she compares her sparse calendar to the stack of old spiral-bound day-planners that are so full of scribbled-out, penciled-in projects that a single-day’s bookings look more like two or three.  Later, we follow her for one busy day in which she does two book signings; a QVC appearance; sound-check for a performance; a meet-and-greet cocktail party; her show; flies to Minneapolis in the middle of the night (during which she writes); arrives at her hotel around 4am—after approximately twenty-one hours of Things To Do.  She groggily tells the concierge that she doesn’t want to be disturbed until after six-thirty; this three-quarters-of-a-century-old woman will be simply useless if she doesn’t get a solid two hours' rest.

If there’s one thing missing in A Piece of Work—besides more context for Rivers’ personal struggles—it’s a lack of Rivers’s take on the arc of stand-up comedy in the four decades since she paved the way for women comics.  She touches on this, mostly by griping that she gets constant praise from young comediennes that suggests Rivers herself has retired.  There are also fleeting mentions of gender politics and professional jealousies, particularly in the scenes where Rivers performs at a star-studded Kennedy Center salute to George Carlin.  But the bitching is all one-sided.  The only other comics interviewed for the film are Kathy Griffin and Don Rickles, who are both friends and colleagues.  It would’ve been interesting to see Rivers’ contemporaries who perhaps don’t like her; maybe some interviews with young comics to see what they think of her paving their way—if they even know who Joan Rivers is.

That’s a documentary I’d love to see.  But for now, we have A Piece of Work; and it really is.  I didn’t know much about Joan Rivers before watching it, and it left me wanting more—which is the mark, they say, of a gifted entertainer (and talented filmmakers).