Comedian Joan Rivers is, indeed, a piece of work. But you don't appreciate just what hard work it is until you see Ricki Stern and Anne Sundberg's documentary, Joan Rivers -- A Piece of Work."
The filmmakers followed Rivers for a year, from the smallest gigs -- tiny Manhattan rooms where she works out regularly to develop her act and keep it fresh -- to the biggest (the George Carlin tribute at the Kennedy Center). Rivers gave them surprising access, displaying an incredible lack of vanity and an amazing self-awareness, even as she worked, worked, worked at promoting and selling the brand name of her own industry: Joan Rivers.
It is, of course, a given that standup comedians are painfully insecure; normal people don't get up on a stage most nights, begging for both attention and approval. And so it is with Rivers, who seems to be in a constant state of low-grade panic over the insufficient amount of work she has booked at any given moment.
At age 75, she is also surprisingly vulnerable, particularly as an artist. She always dreamed of being an actor and went into comedy as a way to break in. To this day, she still longs for the respect she always sought as an actor and speaks about her first experience on Broadway, with a play she cowrote called Fun City that was crucified by critics and ran for nine performances in 1972, as though the wound is fresh.
Which colors her experience with a new play she is working on: an autobiographical piece that she takes to the Edinburgh Festival and then to London, in hopes that critical acclaim abroad will translate into a Broadway booking that will erase the sour memory of her previous experience.
The documentary touches on several other moments in that year, from her appearance on Celebrity Apprentice (the first time she'd been on NBC since Johnny Carson blackballed her for starting her own talk show on the fledgling Fox network) to gigs at casino showrooms big (Foxwoods in Connecticut) and small (a Wisconsin engagement where an audience member starts heckling her angrily for a Helen Keller joke).
She touches on everything - from her banishment by Carson to the suicide of her husband, from her ongoing relationship with cosmetic surgery to her dwindling relationship with her long-time manager. Rivers is nothing if not brutally blunt - about herself and everyone else.
She is also outrageously funny, a rat-a-tat joke machine whose unerring honesty inevitably takes the form of a needling one-liner. Often, you get the feeling that she jokes to stave off the darker feelings that seem only barely held at bay.
I've interviewed Joan Rivers a couple of times over the years, including once in the palatial townhouse she owns just off Fifth Avenue. She was never less than candid, funny while at the same time being no-nonsense.
As the movie shows, she is an artist who is her own instrument, a savvy businesswoman and a veteran entertainer, but also a woman whose life has seen amazing highs and tragic lows. I know people who love her and people who hate her. But, no matter how you feel, after seeing Joan Rivers - A Piece of Work, you can't help but admire her.