Joan Rivers: A Piece Of Work

Joan Rivers: A Piece Of Work


Reviewed by: Amber Wilkinson

Joan Rivers, the name that launched a thousand plastic surgery jokes. And the woman behind the facelifts is well-aware of the fact. Even the A Piece Of Work subtitle of this revealing and moving documentary, alludes to it. Annie Sundberg and Rickie Stern (previously responsible for excellent Darfur documentary The Devil Came On Horseback) are intent on taking a close look at the woman behind the mask, right down to capturing her in the opening scenes as she gets her make up done.

What is most surprising is not the dilligence with which Sundberg and Stern set about following the course of Rivers through a year of her life - although that is certainly in evidence - but how incredibly welcoming she is to their scrutiny. What emerges is a picture of a woman who is effortlessly funny at a point in her life where her only approach is up front and who clings to her workaholic tendencies like a life-raft. Her mantra? "Working is happiness" - and, boy, does this woman work, defying her 75 years to seemingly manage to be in, if not two places at once, then at least three places in quick succession.

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Sundberg and Stern knit an impressive amount of biographical detail into this year in the life, fleshing out Rivers' early career. This serves to remind us that the woman who has become the butt of so much humour was at the fiercely cutting edge of comedy when she started out on the circuit, paving the way for the likes of today's risque comics such as Sarah Silverman and Kathy Griffin. There is no doubt that Rivers is a tough cookie to work for. She lives in a baroque explosion of a home, where even the telephone is alarmingly marbled. Yet for all the gaudiness and showy front of both her lifestyle and personality, it's clear that even she has a sensitive more introspective side, albeit veiled in self-deprecating humour.

When the question of her producer/working partner husband Edgar Rosenberg - who committed suicide in 1987 - comes up, Rivers is fiercely and touchingly upfront about it. Talking about the period of her life which saw her go from Johnny Carson's golden girl to being completely estranged from him after jumping ship to Fox - there's a sense of the incidents surrounding Rosenberg's death leaving her in no doubt that fame is a fickle mistress. The whole documentary, in fact, is something of a salutory lesson about how fame treats those, particularly female, stars who have the temerity to want to hang on after their "fame expiration date". Nowhere is this more clearly illustrated than in Joan's treatment of her own daughter Melissa. On the one hand she is massively protective of her and worried what celebrity will do to her, while on the other, like all mums, willing her on to succeed.

Sundberg and Stern are to be congratulated on producing a detailed portrait of Rivers that while clearly affectionate towards her, isn't afraid to show her in a less than flattering light when the occasion demands. Better still, they are to be celebrated for managing to do this is a way that captures just how funny and human she is as well.

"I just want to be loved," she tells an interviewer part way through this must-see film. After watching it, you'll find it hard not to respond to her request.

Reviewed on: 28 May 2010
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Honest and open portrait of the groundbreaking comedienne.
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Director: Ricki Stern, Annie Sundberg

Starring: Joan Rivers, Melissa Rivers

Year: 2010

Runtime: 84 minutes

Country: US

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