Watching the new documentary Joan Rivers: A Piece of Work, one has to concede that comedian Joan Rivers, like her or not, has been an important figure on the stand-up scene, and especially important to women in a male-dominated field.
But we also learn that Rivers is ruthless in her self-preservation (and I don’t just mean the surgery). In the film, Rivers opines, "When female comedians say, 'You opened doors for me,'”—emphasis on the past tense—“I wanna say, ‘[Expletive deleted] you! I'm still opening doors for you." No one’s pushing the 77-year-old comic off the stage, not even her daughter Melissa (who Rivers beats in competition on The Celebrity Apprentice).
The documentary by Ricki Stern and Annie Sundberg (The Devil Came on Horseback) emphasizes the dog-eat-dog nature of show biz that contributes to Rivers’ hunger. In the film’s first scene, the comedian reveals her greatest fear to be a blank calendar, and the picture goes on to prove this is no euphemism or exaggeration. Her personal assistant explains, “Joan will turn nothing down. Nothing,” not even if she finds it humiliating, like a Comedy Central Roast built on zingers she takes personally, mostly coming from comics who aren’t her friends. All the while, what Rivers really wants to do is act: “My acting is my one sacred thing in life…I [only] play a comedian.”
Filmed over “a year in the life of a semi-legend” that includes both the Celebrity Apprentice stint and Rivers’ dream project—an autobiographical play that premieres at Edinburgh and proceeds to London in the hopes of transferring to Broadway—A Piece of Work captures the comic’s indomitability, driven personality, and workaholism, largely directed at maintaining the lifestyle to which she has become accustomed (showing off her astonishing home, she cracks, "It's how Marie Antoinette would have lived if she'd had money"). And, through inference, it’s clear that the sexism Rivers has faced (as seen in a condescending Jack Paar clip) has contributed to her deep insecurity.
But respect is not the overriding impression A Piece of Work leaves. Rather, the film—perhaps inevitably—makes us pity Rivers, not so much for the life struggles she has faced (namely, her failed late night talk show, chased by her husband’s suicide), but rather for her emotional neediness, her stew of delusion and neuroses. Stern and Sundberg mostly try to avoid authorial overtones, letting the material they captured speak for itself, but one suspects they didn’t expect or intend to make their subject seem so worrying, if not pathetic. There’s a touch of the bipolar to it all: one minute, Joan moans, “Life is so mean,” and the next she’s proudly telling her Thansgiving assemblage that every time she gets in a limo, she says, “Thank you God. I am so chosen.”
On the bright side, Stern and Sundberg check in with the well-adjusted Don Rickles and Rivers’ seemingly admiring sort-of protégé Kathy Griffin (though I think we’d all rather hear what anti-Rivers Sarah Silverman has to say about all this). Melissa convincingly observes that “All stand-ups are innately insecure…damaged.” Where Joan Rivers: A Piece of Work stumbles is failing to illuminate, or apparently even investigate, the early source of its subject’s hungry void.
[This review first appeared in Palo Alto Weekly.]