Joan Rivers: A Piece of Work (2010) dir. Ricki Stern and Anne Sundberg
By Alan Bacchus
The filmed document of a year in the life of Joan Rivers, at 75 years old, still energetic, ruthless and talented, becomes a great metaphor for not only the philosophy she has applied to her entire career but the struggle for any comedian or entertainer who has to mix entertainment with business savvy in order to make a living.
The film opens up with Joan having her make-up put on, a labourious process which involves painting a layer of brown foundation to substitute for a tan. Rivers has been the butt of jokes for years for her multiple plastic surgeries, but as the film will reveal, being a woman without traditional good looks in the entertainment business has made her highly self-conscious, which ultimately helped fuel her desire to succeed.
After her make-up we meet Jocelyn, her assistant for over decade, who goes through her agenda - a black book, which upon seeing the blank white pages puts the fear of God in Joan. The filmmakers portray Rivers as a chronic workaholic, a career which Rivers she once described as like an entity unto itself, like another person in the family.
And so we watch a year in the life of Joan, booking gigs via her manager and agent, from her television appears on the shopping channel to the struggles of her stage play in Britain to her appearance on Celebrity Apprentice and Comedy Central Celebrity Roasts. Every step of the way she candidly looks back on her rise to fame, the ups and downs including the absolutely worst moment, the suicide of her husband Edgar.
Joan Rivers doesn’t come off as completely modest and grounded as many celebrities claim to be. But admirably Joan is self aware enough to admit she appreciates the good things her money has afforded her in life, like her ridiculously extravagant bourgeois NYC condo which as looks as if its been decorated by Marie Antoinette herself. This of course has been part of her act for years, her ability to self-deprecate herself as much as she critiques people.
The film is a breeze, with a surprisingly quick pace. Like her act, there never a dull moment, constantly taking the piss out of herself and the people and places she encounters along the way. We never ever sense superiority though, as a veteran of the entertainment business she’s respects the rules, that at any moment she could be out of business, forgotten and a has been. And so at 75 years, her ability to still make ‘em laugh is admirable, but to keep working no matter what the gig is the goal.