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Our Miss Rivers

Documentary captures the life and talent of still-working living comedy legend.

Review by Gabrielle Nash and Michael Shashoua

Joan Rivers: A Piece of Work,” the documentary about the life and existence of the veteran trailblazing comedian, seen recently in a special screening at the 92Y Tribeca in advance of its theatrical run, is an honest, warts-and-all chronicle of both Rivers’ personality and her talent.

The film, by Ricki Stern and Anne Sundberg, could be considered a bookend to “George Carlin Last Words,” (see review, 12/9/09) with the only difference being that audiences are getting it while the subject is still alive to be appreciated for what the document brings out about them.

“A Piece of Work” contains generous helpings of Rivers’ live performances as well as a candid look at her personality offstage. The filmmakers use archival footage where necessary as seasoning and for context, not as the main event. The candid tone of the documentary is set in some of its very first shots of Rivers, in the process of being made up for a performance, that do deliberately show her age.

One big insights we get about Rivers from the interviews with her that the filmmakers present between footage of her act and life, is that she hates being thought of as someone who paved the way for those who followed – in the past tense. In her golden years, Rivers has gotten more free to let the F bomb fly liberally, and to “paved the way,” she says, “Fuck that, I’m still paving the way for people!”

The other big insight the filmmakers bring out about Rivers is that she won’t hesitate to tell you she’s in comedy for the cash, not pretensions of art. She could have stopped performing and working long ago if she chose to live modestly, but she keeps up a certain lifestyle that she continually performs to support. That lifestyle may include taking limos everywhere but it also includes supporting friends and employees to the extent of paying for their children’s educations, out of love and care for them.

Rivers’ talent as a performer lies in her acid tongue, of course, and the filmmakers capture that too, as she turns on a would-be heckler objecting to her making fun of blind and mentally disabled people. “You don’t understand what comedy is,” she snaps at him. “I have someone in my life that’s blind.” Later she tells the filmmakers, “We have to joke about the harsh things in life to deal with them, but this moron doesn’t get that.” Certainly Rivers has had her share of harsh things in life, such as rejection by her mentor and patron Johnny Carson only for setting out to do her own talk show, and the subsequent suicide of her husband who suffered unimaginable pressure of being seen as a liability by the network when he was producing that talk show with her. But after all that, Rivers can still turn that acid tongue on herself and her own, freely.

“I wanted to do the right thing as a parent,” Rivers says onstage, recalling when her daughter Melissa came to her for support in turning down an offer to pose nude in Playboy. “But, ‘you turned down $400,000?’” Rivers says, incredulous. “I wanted to tell her, ‘Ask for a million and show them some bush!’”  

The end result of everything the documentarians bring out about Rivers in “A Piece of Work” is that audiences get a sincere take on her life from the performer herself as well as a greater understanding of where she’s coming from and how that fuels her comedy and performances. By consenting to the filmmakers’ scrutiny, Rivers humanizes herself and dispels the clichéd jokes others make about her, gaining as much respect as any other deserving comedy legend.

“Joan Rivers: A Piece of Work” opens at IFC Center, Clearview Chelsea and Lincoln Plaza Cinemas in New York on Friday, June 11.

 

   

     

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