But thanks to a year’s worth of dedicated work by a documentary crew, we get the privilege to go underneath the plastic and makeup to see the real Joan Rivers. They managed to filter everything down to an hour and a half to create the often shocking but always honest “Joan Rivers: A Piece of Work,” a film full of profound revelations about show business.
It’s a complete and thorough look at the comedienne. We get to see how she lives, how she works, and how she deals with everything going on in her life after she turns 75. What makes the movie special, though, is that it delves into why she works. At her age, most people choose to settle down and retire. So why is she booking gigs at hole-in-the-wall New York clubs and small Wisconsin towns? Like Sgt. James of last summer’s “The Hurt Locker” showed us, it’s possible to be addicted to things other than drugs, and Joan Rivers is simply addicted to working. She has to be booked to keep her world afloat.
We would all think that someone with Rivers’ fame (or infamy) could keep her busy all the time, but she reminds us what a fickle business the entertainment industry can be. The fearless woman comic that everyone wants is not her anymore but rather Kathy Griffin. It’s strange to think that fame can still be ephemeral even for someone so well established in comedy as she is, and Rivers doesn’t ever hesitate to remind us of it. She lets us see all of her insecurities, as reticent in front of the camera as she is doing her stand-up act, which is to say not at all.
The filmmakers also do a fantastic job of putting her recent triumphs and struggles in a historical context, giving us flashbacks to her days of discovery by Johnny Carson, her trail-blazing early years in comedy when she dared to make a joke about abortion, and her tumultuous family life. While there’s the joy of meeting her husband Edgar and quickly marrying, there’s also the pain of his suicide and the ruin that it left her. While there’s her fame that comes from being Carson’s golden girl, there’s also the heartbreak of being blacklisted by NBC when he felt betrayed by her getting her own show. Have no doubt about it, Rivers has had no cakewalk of a life. Yet throughout it all, she’s kept working because she needs it.
As in all documentaries, we find it fascinating to see the subject as the camera crew sees them. Yet “Joan Rivers: A Piece of Work” takes our vision one step deeper; we get to see how Rivers sees herself. In her mind, she’s an actress, not a comedian, and she can’t take anyone insulting her acting. Simply playing herself here is a great performance, certainly one we won’t soon forget. A /