Joan Rivers: A Piece of Work
Joan Rivers, scars and all
I doubt I’m alone in this, but Joan Rivers strikes me as possibly the least appealing entertainment personality on Planet Earth. (Yes, even less than Ke$ha.) Actually, I’ve almost given up thinking of Rivers as human — after a half century in show business, she has reduced herself to a shtick figure of braying borscht belt cruelty and remnants of flayed skin.
By contrast, “Joan Rivers: A Piece of Work’’ is one of the smarter, more unexpectedly touching documentaries of the year, and I recommend it to you whether you love Rivers or loathe the very thought of her. How is this even possible?
Because filmmakers Ricki Stern and Annie Sundberg approach their subject as a survivor rather than a well-rounded human being. At 77, Rivers is a groundbreaker in the history of stand-up comedy, and it gives her no peace. She’s a joke in a culture that says women have to be either young or classy, and she doesn’t give a damn. All that matters is the next booking and the next audience.
When the movie opens, in 2008, the audiences are few and far between, and Rivers is starting to panic. She has another book coming out, she’s pitching a TV pilot, she’s selling jewelry on QVC, and she’s mounting a one-woman show for the Edinburgh Festival Fringe. None of it is enough. She knows most people laugh at her instead of with her; she understands that endless cosmetic surgeries have turned her into a sock-puppet parody of her former self. And she knows — or insists on believing — that one comeback could turn it all around, whether that’s getting a spot on “Celebrity Apprentice’’ or bringing her autobiographical play to New York.
The filmmakers view Rivers with sympathetic curiosity as a sort of scarred show business shark, helpless to do anything except move forward. We see her onstage, battering disbelieving audiences into laughter with hilariously incorrect one-liners; after a heckler at one show protests a Helen Keller joke, the comedian tears into him, informing him her mother was deaf and howling, “Let me tell you what comedy is about — comedy is to make everybody laugh at everything and deal with it!’’
We see the peaks Rivers has ascended, and the hands she has bitten. She wrote a Broadway play called “Fun City’’ in 1972, which the critics savaged so mercilessly that she winces just speaking of it. Rivers could have been the next Johnny Carson — as it was, her many “Tonight Show’’ stints resulted in her being tapped as official guest host for years — but after going over to Fox for a doomed 1986 talk show of her own, Carson never spoke to her again.
And we see Rivers with those close to her, or as close as anyone gets: paid minions and a funny, unreliable manager who goes AWOL once too often during the course of the filming. We hear of Edgar Rosenberg, the husband whose business sense wasn’t what it should have been and who killed himself in 1987. Even that was grist for the mill, as Rivers turned the tragedy into an appalling made-for-TV movie starring herself and her daughter, Melissa. For her it’s not real until it’s showbiz, and it’s at this point that you realize Rivers simply doesn’t have a private self.
“A Piece of Work’’ brings on Kathy Griffin, the caustic comic who has usurped much of Rivers’s turf, and the younger woman is respectful in her comments; I’d rather have heard from Sarah Silverman, who seems a truer heir in daring and verbal filth. And by the end of the film, Rivers has become an oddly brave figure — mawkish, childish, but committed to living in the moment because that’s where the laughs are. The entertainment world she knew has vanished completely and still she soldiers on, flying to any book signing or comedy club that will have her. It’s not about pride, or dignity, or legacy, or love. What, then? Being seen, just that. Joan Rivers may be the purest expression of a culture addicted to celebrity. No wonder she’s warped beyond recognition and still recognizably human.
Ty Burr can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.