It's a shame that my generation's knowledge of Joan Rivers generally extends no further than her involvement with red carpet shows -- "Can we talk?" and "Who are you wearing" ensconced in the public vernacular -- and the endless plastic surgery jokes made at her expense. For anyone willing to even lightly peruse archives of her stand-up will find one of the sharpest minds in the field, a comic so ahead of the curve that she still comes off confrontational long after other Tonight Show favorites like Don Rickles have become parodies of themselves. The distinction between Rickles and Rivers is that everyone else is trying to make a joke out of Joan, but she always hits back the haters with something far wittier.
Joan Rivers, A Piece of Work was made by Ricki Stern and Anne Sundberg, who previously directed the Darfur documentary The Devil Came on Horseback and The Trials of Darryl Hunt (about a man falsely imprisoned for 20 years for a rape/murder), and it surprisingly stands in the company of those hard-hitting and bleak looks at the world. Charting a year in the life of the then-75-year-old comedienne, the film spotlights Rivers' state of flux between being a respected icon and being a cast-off in the perpetual motion youth machine that is show business. In the first few minutes, she goes over her schedule and holds up a blank planner, calling it her worst nightmare. For someone who might still seem ubiquitous through all her awards coverage, Rivers struggles to hang on as she works the same nightclubs she performed in before Johnny Carson launched her career.
Unlike some of her contemporaries, Rivers isn't cashing in on nostalgia. She doesn't enjoy showbiz tenure in Vegas, doesn't have a trove of DVDs and CDs to re-release all the time. She agrees to anything that comes her way to keep her in the spotlight. She knows she's selling her soul for Celebrity Apprentice and those awful perversions of old Friar's Club roasts that have turned personal and honorific jokes into a parade of half-talented hacks finding ways to tell the same three jokes. But how else to pay for her opulent lifestyle, or her generosity toward her staff and especially their children? (Reference is made to her putting the kids of her staff through private school, at least a $100,000 investment per child just to get them to the collegiate level.) She and her manager joke about the gaps in her schedule when she isn't jumping at something, anything, but they seem to laugh that they may not cry.
Rivers' comic style has always been candid, and she's nothing if not frank here. On her plastic surgery, she speaks of the industry's hatred of age and the hypocrisy of those same people turning around and mocking her for taking measures to maintain that youth. The tutting and clucking of tongues is the most rank, sexist bullshit you can imagine, and one can plainly see that insulting someone's modified looks hardly helps someone who got the surgery in the first place over insecurity over looks. In old clips of her talk show performances, Joan pokes fun at her appearance, but when the filmmakers return to the present and Rivers casually says in the middle of makeup that no man ever told her she was beautiful, we get a piercing, off-the-cuff insight into the pain that motivates her humor.
For 84 minutes, Rivers takes us into similarly revealing territory. She speaks of the poisoning of her relationship with Carson, destroyed when she parlayed her frequent guest hosting gigs on the Tonight Show into a competing talk program on Fox. That show cost her Johnny, and her husband, driven so mad by executives' manipulation that he committed suicide and left Joan and Melissa with massive debts. We learn she cares more for acting than comedy, having gotten into stand-up to pay the bills while she tried to launch her acting career -- making her perhaps the only person to try stand-up to make money. But once Carson told her she'd be a star, she threw herself into the business, and she shows the directors a wall of file cabinets in her home containing cards with jokes written on them arranged by alphabetized subjects -- "My Sex Life" sits nearby "No Self-Worth." Fearful of the younger comics with their hidden writers, Rivers fills these shelves with cards, a one-woman writing staff cataloging bits as if preparing for the talk show she no longer has.
Though it never dips into Spinal Tap territory, A Piece of Work does offer a stark look at the entertainment industry when a star enters late age. Rivers voices her disdain for hearing she's a legend or that she's opened doors because that's what one says of the dead and retired. She is invited to perform at the Kennedy Center tribute for George Carlin, and she rightly notes that Carlin would have despised the whole thing, and that the Establishment praises him in death as the final insult and dismantling of his power. Flanked by comics who, for the most part, barely knew him, Rivers feels the pain of the event and its meaning more than anyone. But, once again, she goes on anyway, disgusted by the spectacle yet perversely honored that she was considered. If she doesn't go, they'll be doing this same, eulogistic ceremony for her next year and she'll still be alive.
And yet, she soldiers on, still grateful for every fan, still primed for every gig. The Celebrity Apprentice and Comedy Central Roast gambles pay off: Rivers gets back in the spotlight, but she's too much of a professional to wallow in it. She gets more gigs, endless appearances, off them, and suddenly people can still see how fiery she is. Like another examination of dedication in the face of adversity, Anvil! The Story of Anvil, A Piece of Work may be depressing, but it's ultimately uplifting. Through all her hardships, Joan never gives up, and she still has the drive. She's abrasive but unfailingly kind, and if she insulted you on the street, it's only because that's how you rib a friend. Her blend of vulgarity and grandmotherly care can be seen when a Hellen Keller joke inspires the rage of a heckler with a deaf son. She berates him into silence but clearly feels bad, and when other fans come to her after the show for autographs and slam him, she quietly says, "But he does have a deaf son." It's the clearest display of how Rivers has evolved these 40 years in the limelight, both as a performer attempting to stay fresh and as a person who clings to all the family she has left. Throughout the movie, Joan Rivers insists she's not through yet and still has something to say. By the end, you'll realize she doesn't need to keep making the point. She makes it every time she goes on stage.