Joan Rivers: A Piece Of Work (Directors: Ricki Stern and Anne Sundberg): Joan Rivers is the type of subject you’d expect Nick Broomfield (Biggie and Tupac, Heidi Fleiss: Hollywood Madam) to take on instead of Ricki Stern and Anne Sundberg (The Devil Came on Horseback, The Trials of Darryl Hunt). How do you go from making films about genocide and death row to the queen of comedy?
Stern first met Rivers through her family. After spending some time with Rivers and getting to know her better, Stern and Sundberg decided that Joan Rivers would be their next project. The idea of doing a film about a comedienne appealed to them and would be a nice change from their previous work.
Try to Google “joan rivers” and Google will suggest “joan rivers plastic surgery.” Joan’s face is a piece of work, a lot of work. The film opens with several close-up shots of her face without any makeup and it isn’t pretty. It sets the tone for the film which gives us a raw, honest look at an aging performer.
Rivers claims that the first thing she does in the morning is her makeup, and jokes that even she can’t bear to look at herself until she is made up. At one point in the film she arrives at a meeting with her face swollen after receiving collagen injections. Rivers is consumed with her image and hates the thought of growing old and fading into obscurity.
I was struck by how much energy this 76-year-old comedienne has. She keeps an incredibly busy schedule and worries constantly about her bookings and appointments. She jokes with her personal assistant about whether she should put some sunglasses on before she looks at her day timer, worried that pages will be blindingly white, blank. Rivers will do commercials, book signings, standup comedy and promote just about anything so long as it pays and keeps her in the spotlight. She’s a self-confessed workaholic and the last thing she wants to do is sit by the pool and relax.
Stern and Sundberg spent 14 months with Joan Rivers, plenty of time to get to know the real Joan which I think comes across in the film. If you’re unfamiliar with her standup comedy you might be surprised by some of the expletives coming out of her mouth. She is incredibly funny, quick and witty when it comes to her audiences. I was impressed with how she handled a heckler at a show in Wisconsin.
At the same time she comes across as a very caring and fair person. She delivers turkeys to families on Thanksgiving, supports many family members and friends financially, and always makes time for her adoring fans. It’s easy to look at Joan Rivers as a freak but this film takes us behind the mask and provides us with a unique look at her human side.
Second Look: Drew Kerr
Co-directors Ricki Stern and Annie Sundberg previously explored sombre subjects such as Rwandan genocide and the story of a death row inmate in some of their previous films. Their latest documentary tackles a decidedly less heavy subject in the trailblazing comedienne, but don’t be fooled by the notion a movie about somebody that makes people laugh for a living will be devoid of its own share of (relatively) darker areas. Comedians have historically been a fairly screwed up bunch and Rivers is no exception, as the film captures by chronicling her roller coaster career that has met with numerous personal struggles along the way.
The film was shot over 14 months, during which we see Rivers celebrate her 75th birthday (she is now 77) and wear the many hats which make up her almost 50 years in show business: stand-up comedian, QVC (and any other product that’ll use her) shill, author, TV personality, philanthropist, and actress. The filmmakers had the good fortune to be shooting during a short, but eventful period that is fitfully emblematic of her entire career. Early scenes show a restless Rivers fretting over the empty pages in her day planner that symbolize another professional valley, and by the end of the movie we’ve seen her hit a career peak with a high profile win on NBC’s The Celebrity Apprentice, which turns out to be even more satisfying because of Rivers’ claim that she was blackballed from the network after leaving her job as the permanent guest host on The Tonight Show to host her own late night show on Fox in 1986 (when she called Johnny Carson to inform him of her decision he was so mad he slammed down the phone and never talked to Rivers for the rest of his life). Along the way, the viewer also sees Rivers’ personally crushing defeat from the failed 2008 London run of her autobiographical play, which she had aspirations would eventually make it to Broadway.
The 1987 suicide of her husband, Edgar, is obviously brought up, although nothing terribly enlightening about it is revealed, having already been heavily discussed by Rivers over the years. The seemingly overprotective nature of the relationship with her daughter, Melissa, is addressed, but one only need to have seen a single episode of The Celebrity Apprentice (on which Melissa was also a contestant) to have gotten a good sense of it. And then there’s the plastic surgery aspect of Joan Rivers…clearly, no writing piece on her would be complete without it. Rivers’ propensity for going under the knife has become her trademark and she has gotten plenty of mileage out of it in her career. A current print ad campaign for Snickers features Rivers face with the tagline “When I’m hungry, I get my face lowered”. Frankly, I’m not even sure what the hell that means, but she’s obviously poking fun at herself. The opening shot of the movie features an extreme close-up of Rivers’ significantly reworked face, sans makeup, and it’s not a pretty sight, folks. It was certainly a ballsy move to have subjected herself to such visual scrutiny, especially in the age of HD. I’d love to know how much trouble the filmmakers had in convincing her to do it, or if she actually suggested it (I tried asking the directors at the post-screening Q & A, but didn’t get picked by the moderator to ask my question).
Joan Rivers turns out to be rich fodder for an in-depth bio like A Piece Of Work, based on her legendary career, still sharp wit, workaholic nature, frank opinions, and fascinatingly complicated personality.