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Fearless, But Not Whole
A Cubist look at Joan Rivers
by Molly Templeton
JOAN RIVERS: A PIECE OF WORK: Directed by Ricki Stern and Annie Sundberg. Written by Ricki Stern. Cinematography, Charles Miller. Editor, Penelope Falk. Music, Paul Brill. IFC Films, 2010. R. 84 minutes.
Joan Rivers: A Piece of Work makes Rivers, the perpetual Oscars red carpet host and butt of endless plastic surgery jokes, human again. In that, at least, it’s a success from the very first frames, which show glimpses of Rivers’ face without makeup. You never see the whole picture — just a cheek here, an eye there — but it’s not hard to imagine the whole.
That’s a reasonably apt description of Ricki Stern and Annie Sundberg’s 84-minute documentary as well: What we see is revealing, but the whole picture is somewhat elusive. The filmmakers spent a year with nearly unlimited access to Rivers, filming the hustle, the insecurity, the normal family tension and (almost) everything else. Rivers, in her mid-70s, is neurotic about working; she can’t stand it when her appointment book is blank. When she’s not appearing on a cruise or hawking things for QVC (Rivers never says no, her associates say), she does small stand-up gigs in New York, working through new material that’s still as foul-mouthed and fearless as ever. She almost never stops joking, always with a laugh at the end, even when she’s talking about the youth-focused culture in which she’s trying to sustain work or her fear of bringing her new play to New York to be eviscerated by critics.
This scene, near the middle of the film, is where Rivers’ surprising charm — building and building through her honesty and her gruff warmth — starts to falter. Rivers says acting is sacred to her, but she also says that she can’t do another play in her hometown if it’s going to get bad reviews. Her commercial and artistic instincts are warring — and you know which side wins.
Watching this pivotal point is more telling than seeing Rivers’ trip to deliver meals to unwell people on Thanksgiving or hearing her comments about competing with her daughter — telling not only about Rivers and the fears that drive her, but about what it takes to still be fighting a performer’s battle when you’ve grown up and won’t go quietly. “God help the next queen of comedy,” Rivers’ manager, Billy Sammeth, says, “because this one is not abdicating.”
Rivers’ candor is appealing, her work ethic impressive. But Joan Rivers: A Piece of Work rushes a bit through the things that make her Joan Rivers, skipping speedily through her decades of work. It stops to point out she was the first woman to host a late-night talk show (after becoming Johnny Carson’s co-host), and takes a moment to remember her late husband, but the backstory doesn’t effectively present Rivers’ lengthy career and unquestionable influence. A little more context would help, starting with dates on the old footage and continuing with more interviews with those whose careers benefit from Rivers’ groundbreaking early work. (I expected Sarah Silverman to pop up at any minute.)
Joan Rivers: A Piece of Work’s year-in-the-life structure means that sometimes you can feel the filmmakers searching out their narrative hook, but that’s not necessarily a detriment. If you haven’t been following Rivers’ career, each possibility is an unknown: Will her autobiographical play succeed? How will she do on Celebrity Apprentice? How will her stand-up go over in small-town Wisconsin when she tends to crack jokes about anal sex and 9/11? Stern and Sundberg never let the uncertain narrative overwhelm their subject — but how could they? This is Joan Rivers we’re talking about. She’ll offend, she’ll be funny, she’ll appear desperate for the public’s attention, even if it’s negative — and she will keep all eyes turned on her, one way or another.
Joan Rivers: A Piece of Work opens Friday, July 2, at the Bijou.