The documentary “Joan Rivers: A Piece of Work” follows the comic/actress/entertainer/performer in her 76th year.
The raspy voice, off-color humor and plastic surgery popularly define the woman. The documentary, which has already played at the Sundance and Tribeca film festivals and is now in select theaters, provides other seemingly defining characteristics: insecurity, competitiveness, sensitivity, hard work.
Rivers has been in show business for decades, as some old footage of Rivers with Johnny Carson and other TV personalities makes clear. She knows the ropes, which is to say she’s trying to defy aging.
She talks openly on camera about her attempt to stay youthful. She’s tried it with the surgical knife, tried it with business positioning, tried it with comedic material.
But time marches on, and Rivers jokes (?) about Kathy Griffin getting gigs that should be hers, even as Griffin sits for an interview about the ways Rivers opened doors for other female comics.
It’s a point Rivers is sensitive to. Not opened doors, Rivers clarifies, but opening doors. Opening doors.
Rivers still commands a stage, be it in honor of the passing of George Carlin, or in some remote part of Wisconsin that Rivers visits begrudgingly and purely for the paycheck. While there, she gets into a shouting match with not so much a heckler as someone who took offense at a joke she made about Helen Keller’s deafness.
Rivers has been on too many stages to let the man’s offense latch on. She immediately shouts back and goes fiercely after the show’s would-be usurper. Post-show, she seems reflective about the incident, saying the man – who said his own son was deaf – must come to terms with the situation and not be unwilling to laugh about even deafness. She adds that her own mother was deaf – something the filmmakers don’t explore.
Included in this year-in-the-life is Rivers’ stint on “Celebrity Apprentice” with her daughter, Melissa. Rivers derides this opportunity at one point and celebrates it at another.
Weaving in and out of the storyline is her manager, Billy Sammeth. Rivers characterizes Billy in one moment as the one who’s been with her through it all – and later chastising no one in particular for Billy’s absence when the going gets rough. Note: Billy has filed a lawsuit against Rivers alleging she owes him money and that he was mischaracterized in the documentary itself.
In some ways – and stay with me here – “Joan Rivers: A Piece of Work” reminds me of “Jimmy Carter: Man from Plains,” the latter of which follows the former president on his book tour for “Palestine: Peace Not Apartheid.” Carter was 82 when the documentary was shot, and the piece captures his indefatigable self much in the same way filmmakers Ricki Stern and Anne Sundberg catch Rivers.
There’s clearly a lot that Carter and Rivers don’t have in common. For starters, Carter would never let loose on stage the profanities that Rivers does. But each documentary shows a popular figure dealing with his or her public– and some of what is required to make those moments happen.
“Joan Rivers” is getting plenty of good press – something Rivers herself clearly craves. She speaks honestly about getting panned in reviews early in her career and how criticism of her stage acting, especially, rips her heart out.
Another thing she fears: an empty schedule. Rivers unabashedly loves fine things, and she’s willing to work hard to have them. And when the work dries up, she’s afraid.
Of irrelevancy. Of a dwindling bank account. And, always, of that thing she can’t truly control.
Cliff Vaughn is managing editor and media producer for EthicsDaily.com.
MPAA Rating: R for language and sexual humor. Reviewer’s note: Filmmakers include some raunchy bits of Rivers doing standup, so the R is easily warranted.
Director: Ricki Stern and Anne Sundberg
Featuring: Joan Rivers, Don Rickles, Kathy Griffin
The movie’s website is here.