Joan Rivers is a very funny person.
If you agree, then Joan Rivers: A Piece of Work, which opens today at the Landmark Magnolia and Angelika Plano, will prove to be a revealing and honest accounting of a year spent in her company. The documentary, directed by Ricki Stern and Anne Sundberg, sticks very closely to Rivers throughout its running time. Interviews with others are kept to an absolute minimum, and almost all are with members of her camp. What results is a claustrophobic portrait, painted from one angle, that, nevertheless, is compelling to watch.
Rivers has always considered herself an actress first and foremost, she says in the doc, and remains bitter that she has never been taken seriously as a thespian. It’s the classic case of the clown who yearns to be take seriously, but that’s not the only stereotype that Rivers embodies. She also has raging insecurities, is prone to depression, is self-deprecating, and can only be satisfied if she’s constantly in demand.
She runs ragged across the continent, jumping from comic gig to book signing to paid corporate appearance back to comic gig. When the documentary begins its journey with her, in her 75th year of life, she’s worried sick about a lack of work. She has a lifestyle to maintain: an opulent Manhattan apartment, relatives who depend on her, and a small staff of assistants. Beyond that, however, she has a compulsive need to remain busy. And she’s obsessed with receiving the recognition and respects she feels she has always been denied.
After nine years of toiling in comedy clubs, Johnny Carson anointed her on his show as a future star. Her career took off, and eventually she became Carson’s permanent guest host. When a rival network offered her a deal to appear in her own talk show, she grabbed it with gusto, only to have it become her undoing. Carson refused to talk to his new late night competitor, and her husband buckled under the pressure of raised expectations as a producer on her show. He took his own life, devastating Rivers and her daughter Melissa.
Rivers eventually bounced back, but her experience with failure continues to drive and haunt her. She’s like a mountain climber, cognizant of how far she is from the top, and always aware of the depths below.
The documentary takes a hands-off approach to establishing context. This is not the place to come if you’d like to know when, exactly, anything takes place. We hear from her personal assistant, her manager, her agent, and her daughter, but precious few others. Kathy Griffin praises her role as a groundbreaker, Don Rickles says a few words, and that’s about it.
The approach is frustrating because Rivers’ public persona is angry, abrasive, and confrontational. She’s an attack dog, unleashed on innocents, and what’s so groundbreaking about that? It’s left up to Rivers to put forward her own case. She says she was edgy and ahead of her time, joking about abortion on television, for example, at a time when the word couldn’t even be said on the air.
Hearing from other comedians and industry observers might have proved to be more illuminating about Rivers’ place in comedy history. On the other hand, we might have been denied the full force of her personality, exerted over the entire length of the film’s 84-minute running time.
By the end, I was feeling worn down by Rivers. Angry comedians tend to wear out their welcome after a few minutes. Still, Rivers is a fascinating woman to watch, and she’s willing to expose her features (enhanced as they are by plastic surgery) and her fears (especially about reviews).
It’s all fairly mesmerizing. Rivers is definitely a piece of work.
[Joan Rivers: A Piece of Work opens today at the Landmark Magnolia and Angelika Plano.]