Way late review: Joan Rivers: A Piece of Work

It’s funny how our perception of celebrities often depends on when we’re introduced to them. Michael Jackson is pop genius to some, cultural oddity to others. Elvis was either skinny rock icon or fat Vegas crooner. The same can likely be said for Joan Rivers. To me she would likely be labeled the loud mouthed red carpet queen of cosmetic surgery. Not nice. To others she was likely a controversial comedian, breaking ground for women in that world. Joan Rivers: A Piece of Work is a documentary that sheds light on Rivers past and present that helps to both tear down and build upon our perceptions of her celebrity.

If only one thing came through in A Piece of Work it is that Joan Rivers is insecure. She is insanely insecure and it drives her to work harder than most. Insecurity also probably contributes to her image as washed up, as she makes it clear in the documentary that she’ll do just about any appearance for the right price. A bulk of the doc has Rivers fretting over people’s perceptions of her, worry of being relevant, worry about her work being well received. Most documentaries about a celebrity of Rivers’ age would try to clean up the image and build a legend but A Piece of Work doesn’t settle for that. Instead we get a more revealing look at Rivers which makes for a more compelling documentary.

A Piece of Work doesn’t shy away from the stereotypes Rivers has helped create for herself. She comes right out and celebrates her plastic surgery. She doesn’t make apologies for her blatant money grabs that have her appearing in everything from reality TV to hawking goods on the home shopping channel. She argues that it’s more than just her she has to support. She is a business unto herself, complete with a staff that depends on her for their work.

Unbeknownst to me, Rivers was a regular co-host with Johnny Carson on The Tonight Show. She was so successful at that gig that she got her own night show on Fox. This ruined her relationship with Carson for good. He wouldn’t speak to her again. The Fox show failed. Joan was unwilling to fire her husband, Edgar Rosenberg, as the show’s producer so Fox fired them both. Shortly after that, Rosenberg committed suicide. Rivers took an unconventional step in the long healing process by later creating a made for TV movie with her daughter Melissa based on their story of dealing with the suicide of Rosenberg. She acknowledges that many probably think this was an absurd move but proclaims she has little care about that.

The relationship between mother and daughter was not a focus but the time spent there was telling. Melissa makes comments about having to share her life with her mom and her mom’s career. The time the two of them spend on screen for the documentary feels uncomfortable. Both of them share the same spotlight, especially in this later part of Rivers’ career and Rivers is outright competitive with her daughter when it comes to stardom. She is supportive of Melissa when they both appear on Celebrity Apprentice. She shows outrage when Melissa is one of the early contestants to be “fired”, but when she later goes on to win the game there is little vitriol shown to her opponent who she previously blamed for her daughter’s early dismal from the show. Rivers ultimately got what she wanted – the spotlight and some semblance of relevancy. Neither attacks one another but Melissa says that her mom, like any comedian, must have a rather large deficiency when she needs to get on stage and make people laugh, whether with her or at her, it doesn’t matter.

To say Rivers is outspoken is an understatement. Her comedy act is vulgar even by today’s comedic standards. Her disdain for certain people is never hidden. During one comedy act she puts on at a resort in Wisconsin she makes a joke using Helen Keller as the punch line. A man in the audience tells her it’s not funny, his son is blind. Rivers goes ballistic on the guy even as he’s walking out the door. After the show, Rivers is clearly shaken up by the incident as she rattles on trying desperately to defend her joke and reaction to the backlash. Her anger is a shield for the underlying insecurity. In a subtle scene where she’s entering a building before a show, one lone fan comes to her and asks for her autograph. While she signs, the gentleman says Rivers doesn’t get the recognition she deserves. This makes Rivers glow. As she makes her way inside, she makes a sarcastic comment about how she has at least one fan who loves her. Even when praised Rivers can’t hide her self-doubt.

Whatever one thinks of Joan Rivers, A Piece of Work will likely challenge that opinion. It will also entertain. In place of talking heads endlessly praising Rivers’ persistence, drive and talent we get an often times unflattering and raw look at her life. We get to see what drives her to success and come to understand that much of that drive is also what ails her.

 ★★★★☆ 

This post is part of my Way late reviews. Read more reviews here.