Ground-breaking comedian Joan Rivers (who would totally hate being called that) gives us a slice of her life in Joan Rivers: A Piece of Work, a movie that gives us the woman, warts (or, rather, freakishly smooth skin) and all.
Joan Rivers hated her Comedy Central roast, hated being told she opened the doors for future female comedians. For one, it reminded her how old she was, and also it made her sound like she’s done — screw you, she’d say, I’m still walking through those doors.
Rivers is about 75 as this movie is being shot. Fear, she explains, is a blank page in her schedule book. She’ll go anywhere, do anything to keep working. Part of it is the way she likes to live — like Marie Antoinette would have if she’d had money, she says. But part of it is the work itself. She loves the energy of the audience, making people laugh. We see her in Wisconsin, where she is heckled and then has to pull the crowd back. On stage, she’s fearless; after the show, she worries about the guy who heckled her (she told a Helen Keller joke and the man shouted out that he had a deaf son) and hopes the crowd still had a good time.
We see her open a autobiographical play and have it succeed in Edinburgh, Scotland, only to have it bomb in London. We see her go on Celebrity Apprentice, a victory before it even starts because she had been previously banned from NBC after leaving the job as Johnny Carson’s guest host to start her own show at Fox (which quickly ended and was followed by the death, by suicide, of her husband). She personifies the never-give-up, on-with-the-show attitude one associates with a career this long in show business.
After years of seeing her mainly in E! doing red carpet shows and Fashion Police, I’d forgotten what a really smart and sharp comedian Joan Rivers can be. The clips of her stage show — even the part with the heckler that I’d heard several times during radio interviews promoting the movie — aren’t riffs on old shtick; they’re lively of-the-moment stand-up. Her refrain whenever she doesn’t get a big show: Kathy Griffin got all those.
I wasn’t necessarily a Joan Rivers fan going in, but the movie is fascinating. Every facet of her life gets at least a brief glance: husband, daughter, her friendship with Carson, her jokes (she was telling abortion jokes on TV when you could barely talk about sex), even her appearance (the face that I’m familiar with is completely different from the one on TV in those early years; I wouldn’t have guessed they were the same people). The look back offers a nice glimpse of television history, but it’s the hustle of the current years that had me transfixed. She said she plans to follow George Burns’ lead and work well into her 90s and I can see her doing that and better, even if she’s playing to small crowds in cities whose names she’s never heard before.
The documentary is a solid bit of entertainment for casual Rivers fans and hardcore comedy geeks alike. A piece of work, a swell dame, a heck of a broad — Rivers is a character worth watching. A-
Rated R for language and sexual humor. Directed by Ricki Stern and Anne Sundberg, Joan Rivers: A Piece of Work is an hour and 24 minutes long and distributed in limited release by IFC Films.