If anyone today could be defined as a schlock celebrity, it would be Joan Rivers. She’s into her sixth decade as an omnipresent court jester to the cult of celebrity, alternately poking fun at tabloid fodder – on the comedy stage, on talk shows, etc. – and serving as tabloid fodder via gossip columns and reality television. She cracks wise every step of the way but there’s more to her story than her wisecracks let on – and she’s finally allowed us a glimpse behind the facade with Joan Rivers: A Piece Of Work.
The methods behind this documentary were simple enough: filmmakers Ricki Stern and Annie Sundberg simply followed Rivers around for a year of her life, with the star granting full access. The viewer gets to watch Rivers overseeing the abbreviated run of a self-penned play in Edinborough and London, her roast on Comedy Central, the firing of her longtime personal manager and her participation (with daughter Melissa) in Celebrity Apprentice. Rivers of course offers a running stream of commentary before, during and after each milestone covered, be it blessed or tragic.
However, Joan Rivers: A Piece Of Work is no mere travelogue. Rivers endured a string of tribulations in mid-career that have never left her: the collapse of her relationship with mentor Johnny Carson over her landing her own talk show, the betrayal she suffered at the hands of the Fox Network over the abrupt cancellation of said show and the suicide of her husband, Edgar Rosenberg, stemming from the failure. This triple onslaught of tragedy changed Rivers from aspiring star to grizzled survivor and their ghosts haunt her at every turn.
Rivers’ only solution is to chase success with twice the fervor, continuing to work at twenty-something’s pace at an age when most people are a decade or so into their retirement. She tips us off to her mindset (and the insecurity that fuels it) early on when she shows the camera a blank calendar page and says that is her worst nightmare. The flipside of this insatiable desire for work is shown via her determination to have a decent family life (the scenes with Rivers doting on her grandson are unexpectedly warm, showing off a vulnerable side of the star that is not usually seen).
In short, this is a surprisingly multi-dimensional portrait of Rivers. She’s as feisty as you might expect – a highlight has her taking down a would-be heckler during a comedy show with gleeful venom – but she also shows an emotional depth that might even surprise fans who already think they know her. Even if she isn’t your preferred source of humor, Joan Rivers: A Piece Of Work just might help you reconsider the career of this indefatigable showbiz vet.