Under Review: ‘Joan Rivers: A Piece of Work’


Frenetic, disciplined, scared, courageous, inappropriate, blisteringly angry, self-absorbed, vain, extravagant, financially observant, caring, gaudy, insecure and a workaholic – so many ways to describe Joan Rivers.

Joan can give a great joke and then spin off into a string of crass epithets describing her daughter – I’m laughing and then I’m staring at her wondering what on Earth is going on? Where does this other brutal side come from?

It was at the base of Queen Anne Hill at the Uptown Theater as part of the Seattle International Film Festival that a packed house was engaged for 84 minutes with the queen of comedy. The audience was in her hand throughout, even with her rage at a man who didn’t find her funny and her crude F-littered language – that is now becoming so commonplace that she is substituting vulgar names for personal body parts for greater intensity. I don’t think she needs to do this.

My favorite sequence, and the one that showed a side of Rivers I hadn’t seen before, was when she took her grandson on her annual Thanksgiving ritual. While a long table for 30 was being hoisted into her NYC rococo apartment and dinner was being fixed by her staff, Joan was travelling, wrapped in her thick, bushy mink coat, with her grandson, Cooper, to deliver Thanksgiving dinners to the needy.

At one point in the limousine, Cooper is explaining what he’d like for Christmas. Rivers exclaims that the electronic device sounds very expensive. Well, Cooper explains, his friend has three of them. Rivers asks who gave him 3 such costly gifts. He answers that his friend’s grandfather gave them to him. Without missing a beat she asks, “Is he single?”

Rivers showcases one stop on her Thanksgiving trip of mercy. It is a woman who is now wheelchair-bound with MS, but who had once been a featured photographer. The doc featured old TV footage of this woman being interviewed for her work when she was young and still vibrant. That Rivers had this piece put in her doc is both a tribute to the stricken photographer and Rivers who commends the woman’s accomplishment rather than exploiting her tragedy.

And that’s what I saw in this doc about Rivers. Despite a history of critical reviews, including being blacklisted by Johnny Carson, a husband who committed suicide, irregular employment, and plenty of criticism, Joan is one scrappy dame who stays in the game, celebrating accomplishments and getting back up again when times are tough.

She jokes that she would knock her teeth out to be in a denture advertisement just to have work. She crisscrosses America in buses and small planes to play casinos and cruise ships. She explains that she will do anything because she just wants a full calendar – that’s success to her. She shows her date book to us as she complains to her unflappable assistant. She worries over the future blank spots, not too far in the future.

She remarks that her past husband, Edgar Rosenberg, wasn’t a good money manager, and you can see, as a file of bills and checks to sign are presented to her, that she is plenty involved in her own finances now.

One friend warns us, as the camera crew is going to take us into her apartment, that she lives like the Queen of England. Inside Rivers introduces her cook and his wife. We see frilly curtains, warm pastel walls, fluffy pillows and every space packed with gilded femininity. Joan herself says, “Marie Antoinette would live this … if she had enough money.”

About the plastic surgery? I think she looks a little like a wise, unflappable Barbie who will dish out double what comes in. She’s better looking now than she’s ever been. And she’s honest enough about it to show herself in the doc all puffed up and blotched after a painful procedure to puff up the collagen in her face.

I admire Rivers because she has defied the male establishment before the majority of us really acknowledge that it was a barrier. She has been self-sufficient. She has clawed her way up her expensive curtains to be, at age 76, an icon in not just comedy but American life.

Her comedic rage and profanity is still uncomfortable for me, but her success, her self-sufficiency, her devotion to her family and others less fortunate and her indomitable humor make me want to be her friend.

Production Information

Directors: Ricki Stern and Anne Sundberg
Producers: Ricki Stern, Seth Keal, Annie Sundberg

Screenwriter: Ricki Stern

Genre: Documentary

Awards: 1 win & 1 nomination

Sundance Documentary Film Editing Award, Nominated for Sundance Grand Jury Prize

Cast: Joan Rivers, Kathy Griffin, Emily Kosloski, Mark Phillips, Don Rickles, Melissa Rivers, and Larry A. Thompson

MPAA: Rated R for language and sexual humor.

Runtime: 84 min

Release Date: June 11, 2010

Cinematographer: Charles Miller
Editor: Penelope Falk
Music: Paul Brill

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1 Comments Add Yours ↓

  1. Bev #

    Everybody has been reviewing Joan’s doc – and that is because it is really well done, entertaining and interesting. The best writing with the most info is by Caryn James who obviously got some inside info:

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