Opening with a close-up of the crow’s feet around its subject’s eyes and expanding to reveal her Botox-frozen upper lip, the documentary-portrait Joan Rivers: A Piece of Work celebrates Saint Joan the Resilient, Showbiz Survivor.
Ricki Stern and Annie Sundberg dogged the indomitable stand-up comic throughout the course of her 76th year—a typically hectic period during which Rivers lurched from disappointment to triumph and back. Her autobiographical-play-cum-performance-piece received a standing ovation at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival but flopped in London (and never made it to New York). Rivers and her daughter, Melissa, both appeared on Donald Trump’s Celebrity Apprentice—tearful Melissa was soon fired, but Joan hung on to win, prevailing over the rival contestant Annie Duke (whom she refers to as “Annie Douche”). In the midst of everything, Rivers endured a Comedy Central roast and her longtime manager going AWOL, but not before telling the filmmakers that, when it comes to gigs, “Joan turns down nothing.”
For all the frenzied activity, Joan Rivers is less informative dish than infomercializing cliché. It may be a revelation to see an entire wall in Rivers’s fantastic Louis XIV–style apartment (“where Marie Antoinette would live if she had the money”) devoted to the card catalog in which she files all of her jokes. It’s less illuminating to be told, repeatedly, that a performer craves attention. (Oh, please!) Nice to know that Joan is a real person (she comes across as a warm, good-natured, unembarrassed egomaniac) but it’s the character she invented and plays that makes her interesting. Unlike Mr. Warmth, John Landis’s kindred portrait of Don Rickles, Joan Rivers is disappointingly stingy with shtick—so much so that you have to wonder if Rivers intuited that putting too much of her stand-up on film might be a potential threat to her bookings.
The main instance of Joan in action is, of course, a survival riff. Playing a one-night stand somewhere in deepest Wisconsin, she cracks a joke about Helen Keller being a quiet child and is then obliged to effectively, if not amusingly, eviscerate the self-righteous heckler who tries to step on her act by invoking his own deaf son. Stern and Sundberg don’t provide much context, beyond Rivers’s own analysis: “Anger fuels the comedy.” Actually, the filmmakers are not alone in their disinclination to ponder their subject’s art; considering that Rivers is one of the few women capable of holding her own against the vicious shpritz meisters of the Friars Club, she remains remarkably un-theorized by culture critics.
Most everything in Joan Rivers is now. Her backstory gets only a perfunctory once-over: The Barnard-educated daughter of a Westchester doctor who never changed his name from Molinsky, she broke into comedy in the mid-’60s playing the same Village dives that nurtured Woody Allen and Barbra Streisand. (In a sense, she was an amalgam of the two—at once neurotically self-deprecating and stridently physical, not to mention blatantly “too Jewish.”) Utterly tenacious, Rivers perfected her image as a dirty-mouthed yenta who presented herself as tastefully coiffed and immaculately groomed as the Seventh Avenue buyer that she once briefly was.
Rivers’s first target was herself; she later directed her rage at any woman she deemed prettier, thinner, younger, or more successful. Perhaps a rights problem prevented the filmmakers from excerpting the Oscar-night red-carpet ambushes that Joan and accomplice Melissa used to stage on behalf of the E! Channel; they do, however, give a taste of Rivers’s earlier network-TV apotheosis as Johnny Carson’s favorite guest and designated guest host. Footage shows the super-controlled Carson clearly smitten by his protégée’s uninhibited wit (as well as her flying hands, hoarse delivery, and stutter-stop habit of chuckling at her own jokes). Once she realized that she would never inherit Johnny’s chair, Rivers took a job at Fox; Carson responded like a jealous lover and never spoke to her again (something she says she has yet to get over).
Though Rivers’s rich personal story is only intermittently referenced, the filmmakers cannot avoid devoting time to her greatest tragedy and survivor’s tale—the suicide of her husband-producer Edgar Rosenberg. But they gloss over her political evolution from ’60s liberal to Reagan court jester, and don’t provide much insight into the mix of feminist self-assertion and misogynist self-loathing that informs her comedy. Rivers not only anticipated the shock value of Sarah Silverman’s Jewish princess vulgarity but the class-conscious spite with which Sandra Bernhard attacks celebrity culture. Neither woman is interviewed—perhaps at Joan’s request.
The younger generation is represented only by Kathy Griffin, who played Rivers’s daughter on the ’90s sitcom Suddenly Susan, and, of course, Melissa, who plays her daughter in life. At one point, Melissa addresses her sibling rivalry with the entity she calls “The Career,” as in her mother’s. There’s plenty of that in Joan Rivers: A Piece of Work, but I wouldn’t have minded a bit more of Joan Rivers: The Text.