In the world of show business, if you’re not hot, you’re not. No one knows that better than Joan Rivers. At age 77, she’s still pounding the pavement in search of gigs. In the riveting new documentary, “Joan Rivers: A Piece of Work,” Rivers bares her soul, which lends vast insight into the psyche of a woman whose life is her work.
In the film’s opening shot, the camera is severely focused on Rivers’ face sans makeup. It sets the tone for what lies ahead: brutal honesty. Directors Ricki Stern and Anne Sundberg follow the iconic comedian for 14 months and document her maniacal quest to succeed. What surprised me most about Rivers was her immensely fragile sense of self worth. Her caustic humor belies an addiction for acceptance.
It’s all about survival for Rivers. Whether it’s working in dingy clubs and reservation casinos, promoting Home Shopping Network jewelry and even serving as a spokesperson for reproductive-organ enlarging pills — she craves the exposure.
The carefully calibrated combination of comedy and tragedy make “A Piece of Work” hugely watchable. The suicide of Rivers’ husband and Johnny Carson’s blacklisting her from NBC were emotionally devastating for the comedian, but she never backed down. In one scene at a Midwest casino, Rivers hilariously puts a heckler in his place. Backstage, she expresses a profound sadness for the man’s plight.
And that’s what I loved about this film. It demonstrates that the multi-faceted, multi-talented Rivers is more than just an aging plastic surgery junkie (to which she admits). Rivers is a survivor with a gift she chooses to share with the world no matter how painful the process. Whether you love or loathe her, “Joan Rivers: A Piece of Work” entertains, enlightens and edifies.
— Pam Nadon
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