Joan Rivers: A Piece of Work is part documentary part reality television turned in on itself as if to capture both the viewer and the subject in the quasi space that only truly exists where the past and the present merge – turning legend into lore and sometimes the other way around. Let’s face it; Ms. Rivers has been working so long that most twenty-something’s only have the faintest of ideas who she really is, was, or came to be – red carpet commando, QVC celebrity saleswoman, and sadly victim of circumstance under the cosmetic-to-be-young knife. This isn’t so much a movie about Joan Rivers the public spectacle, the woman with the loud, often abrasive opinions about everyone and everything – generally those who appeared, at least temporarily, superior only to fall on the sword of fame and fortune as so many have and continue to do so today. Ms. Rivers is an enigma, a reflection of times gone by as much as a woman, a performer, and a celebrity best appreciated by acknowledging the decades she has endured at the mercy of public love, abhorrence, and scrutiny.
Watch a good documentary for a change, a movie that knows what it is and what it is not. The word documentary dates back to 1926 when Scottish documentarian John Grierson coined the phrase in a review of Robert Flaherty’s film Moana of the same year. But it is impossible to talk about River’s biopic without mentioning her rightful status as diva of the stars; originally used to describe a woman of rare, outstanding talent, the term has taken on the negative connotation of an arrogant, demanding star – shining or otherwise – who very often behaves with poor judgment in pursuit of center stage where the spotlight outshines all others. If Joan Rivers is anything she is a survivor and at 75 years young she is no less passionate, though at times coarse for some if not down right de mauvais gou for most, than her earliest pursuits on television when her brand of humor and charm challenged just about everything and everyone. I can’t help but imagine Red Foxx and Richard Prior as they faced their own stereotypes and barriers; a woman who never stopped working and continues to this day, poised ready for stage, screen or whatever it takes to make a buck and fill the calendar. “It ain’t easy,” she says, signing a bevy of checks to unknown recipients. No, I guess after all these years it wouldn’t be.
Her years in the lime light are evident both in her many cosmetic ‘adjustments and machinations’ as well as her languished, at times belabored memories of years gone by. Yet on camera she stands tall with a “here I am” bravado that is undeniably commendable even when you find her particular variety of humor tasteless or without a barometer with which to smooth over the jagged edges of her ever sharp observations. At one point in the movie she stands before dozens of file drawers filled with thousands of jokes at a moments notice – she is nothing if not prepared, always at the ready, always with a word or two about the unfunny and the funny as opposites that compliment as well as combat one another.
Born Joan Alexandra Molinsky Sanger Rosenberg, Joan Rivers is an American icon, a comedian and television personality, an actress and performer who is perhaps most recognizable for her particular, heavy New York accent and for better or for worse, her numerous cosmetic surgeries. Her documentary opens the doors wide allowing a very honest, personal and at times uncomfortable audience with the celebrity that reveals as much about the public personae as the private, frequently troubled and well taken care of woman who has struggled with her notoriety since her earliest appearances on television where she made an indelible impression on icons like Johnny Carson. This isn’t so much a document of a life as a series of events that span decades, of a woman who juggled her personal life with a career that very often assumed ever ounce of her being. She admits on camera that she wasn’t the best mother to her daughter Melissa, confesses about her marriage that ended in her husband’s suicide and her big break away from the Tonight Show to star in her own show that not only failed but ruffled the feathers of Carson so much that he evidently “black listed” her from NBC for years afterwards. The thing about this documentary that sets it apart from others is how fluid we weave in and out of her moments of celebrity and everydayness, from a star arriving and departing via limousine to an elderly starlet feeding her tiny dog bacon or maybe bacon flavored bacon. You don’t have to like the person documented here, this isn’t so much about how you feel about Joan Rivers as it is about an opportunity to see someone who has spent nearly her entire adult life in front of the camera, on stage, on television and for the investment she has a lot of war wounds and battle scars to prove her dedication. She tells you she needs you as much as you maybe need her and we believe it because she doesn’t have any reason to lie. She is open and honest down to the very last detail; “I wake up and put my makeup on because it’s what I have to do at this age.” How can anyone fault her for that?
Joan Rivers has spent a lifetime building, deconstructing, resurrecting, and rearranging herself in front of fans, felons, and comedy aficionados alike. What is most endearing about this film is that it never feels pressured or manufactured the way some documentaries come across as ‘puff pieces’ or self aggrandizing; River’s is the first to show you her scars, though in all honesty she has a great many more than this camera or any other, I would suspect, will reveal now or any time soon. There is a sense of pained memory in Ms. River’s recollection of her husband, a sense of uncertainty about career choices that lead to ruinous outcomes, and while we follow her from hotel to airport to limousine to back stage at a play she wrote herself and with trepidation awaits the moment to step out and ‘give it a go’, there is a sense of truthfulness that penetrates the veneer that other documentaries are incapable of getting beyond. A Piece of Work, the collaborative effort of veteran filmmakers Ricki Stern and Annie Sundberg, feels like you’ve gathered around a good solid wood table with nice hors d’oeuvres and wine with a crackling fire in the fireplace and an afternoon to talk about the good old days and the present and the space in between that sometimes makes you smile and other times – well, we have all been to those occasions where heavy memories grow heavier by the glassful.
This isn’t the sort of movie that takes a stand either way. The filmmakers probably never intended to place themselves firmly in wet sand, nor planted their feet steadfast and decided that they want you to feel one way or the other for Ms. Rivers. What they do is perform a gentle waltz of sorts, turning with the music of a life lived, stepping to one side as a decade passes into a decade; this is filmmaking at its finest where the images and the personae are one, two sides of opposing forces pushing toward oblivion at every turn, at every caterwauling as if to suggest to the audience every step comes with a price tag, every second, every utterance and while the words show no hesitation from Ms. River’s, there is evidence she has lived a few lifetimes over and will continue to do so at the expense of others and more directly, at the expense of herself.
The phrase No good deed goes unpunished has no rightful origins. It is a phrase that exists as air, a sentiment that can be applied equally to the righteous as well as the forlorn, a sardonic ode that for each thing we do well that something quite the opposite will follow; life is not fair that way but neither is the price of fame and fortune but Ms. Rivers isn’t complaining as much as she is hopeful for a little more time in the limelight, once more into the breach for she has plenty of material from which to gather and a quick wit with which to produce anew.