JOAN RIVERS: A PIECE OF WORK (Dirs. Ricki Stern & Anne Sundberg, 2010)
"I went on Carson, and that night on the air he said, "You're going to be a star."
Joan Rivers, speaking of a pivotal mid '60s appearance, repeats this several times throughout this funny though flawed documentary. It's a statement that has some sting to it because Johnny Carson had her blackballed from NBC late night in 1986 after she left to do a competing talk show on Fox; a show that failed miserably and prompted the suicide of River's producer husband (Edgar Rosenberg).
That doesn't stop her from repeating the phrase ("You're going to be a star") like a mantra. After over 4 decades in the business Rivers is still grasping at stardom.
Sure, everybody knows who she is and she always seems to be on this or that show, but her biggest fear it seems is an empty calendar with no hope of future bookings. The first few shots of the 77 year old Rivers - extreme close-ups while make-up is being applied - are a bit jarring. To see the self proclaimed "poster girl for plastic surgery" on the large scale of a movie screen takes a bit getting used to. Her face is frozen into that of a doll's or a costume party mask.
Scattered throughout are grainy TV clips of Rivers' pre-surgery visage. She was an energetic acerbic comedienne who ripped on her homeliness while targeting Hollywood royalty. Rivers wrote and collected jokes for decades. She gives the film makers a tour of her file cabinets which contain thousands of note-cards containing jokes broken down into subjects like "cooking" or "Tony Danza". Pouring over one of the packed drawers she says: "My life is just...jokes." Directors Stern and Sundberg followed Rivers around for the better part of a year.
Luckily it was a busier year than most for their subject - between stand-up gigs she appears on Celebrity Apprentice and gets roasted on Comedy Central. All the while she spouts her tried and true one-liners, many of which are very funny, but she also pauses for tears when speaking seriously about her career. It's notable that she thinks of hers as "an actress's career", one in which she says she has been "playing a comedienne." If so she does an admirable job especially in one of the film's most striking scenes - facing down a heckler at a less than glamorous gig at an Indian casino in Wisconsin.
This doc can be a bit choppy and rambling - it's easy to get a little lost in the non-fluidity of the footage. The typical trappings of E! celebrity bios flare up too often as well, but there's plenty that even one who is not a fan of Rivers can take away.
It's a portrait of naked ambition, an ode to life sustaining relationships (River's daughter and a few assistants figure here greatly), and it's a tale of how cruel the entertainment industry can be; though it must be said that River's own cruelty has more than a little to do with her lack of star standing these days. JOAN RIVERS: A PIECE OF WORK could've gone deeper, but then again maybe this is as much "behind the mask" as one would really want to get.