By Michael S. Goldberger, film critic
“Can we talk!?” Thus has comedienne and show biz icon Joan Rivers asked for most of her storied career. It’s an invitation to dish the dirt, solely entre nous, as if you were both sitting at the kitchen table. Unsinkable and as well-worn as your favorite jammies, she is now evocatively deconstructed in the documentary “Joan Rivers: A Piece of Work.”
Consider it the back story, the extra-added content chronicling her latest reinvention. Directors Ricki Stern and Anne Sundberg enticingly put a face on the stand-up dynamo behind the Guinness-worthy series of plastic surgeries. Scathingly objective and warmly subjective via interview and narrative, it is a bittersweet, eye opening entertainment.
Point of disclosure: I like the lady, and agree with her perhaps vainglorious contention that, in the royal succession of stand-up comediennes, she reigns just after Moms Mabley and Phyllis Diller. The signature, cutting edge look at people, places and things that has comprised her act was one of the signals in the 1960s that the times they were-a-changin’.
Here, battle scarred but no less vituperative and still instinctively compassionate despite the image, she lets us peek at the propelling self-doubt and bravado behind her practically surreal mask. She’s forthcoming, engaging and vulnerable. But like a coquette schooled by Dickens’s Mrs. Haversham, she reserves the right to keep us enthusiastically guessing.
True, we don’t know how much say Miss Rivers wielded behind filmmakers Stern and Sundberg’s lens. But the inviting, hopeful style of candor allows she is at once prey and predator. Steady as she goes, carving her destiny in full, survival of the fittest mode, it occurs that she is the entertainment industry’s version of both Aesop and Darwin’s turtle.
Indeed, there’s enough Pagliacci-sized heartache to fill a steamer trunk bound for New Haven, from why Johnny Carson virtually blackballed our girl to her husband Edgar’s shocking suicide. There are no jokes on said subjects. Otherwise, it’s stiff upper lip, self-effacing and filled with textural detail. Balancing all the heavy stuff, it’s also very funny.
The documentarians give the doings a latest hurrah aura. Aware that the cameras are on, Rivers occasionally plays to them, but is then seemingly oblivious as she fights the good fight with agents and potential employers. The hunt for bookings is the be all, end all. She is a peddler, a high pressure saleswoman promising a legend and her bag of shtick.
Surrounded by her coterie and celebrating a lifestyle epitomized by an apartment she describes as “how Marie Antoinette would have lived if she had money,” she divulges her proclivity for expensive trappings. She also notes the many people she supports, as if all these factors might explain her boundless zeal and workaholic ethic. But that’s not it.
While made official here, it’s no surprise that Joan Rivers has an addiction common to most performers whose fame spans several generations. It’s a passion for success, an undying dedication to the craft, and that relentless need for the roar of the greasepaint and the smell of the crowd. Taken into this confidence, you’re soon rooting for her triumph.
That is, unless you just plain don’t like her. Undeniably, when she is not tearing herself apart and second-guessing her talent, she is brazen, opinionated, arrogant and rude. While others hide their fiercer appetites beneath a cuddly façade, she informs that at least she’s honest about it. It’s all a matter of whether or not you buy in and allow her dispensation.
At points, the act seems not a modus operandi, but an obstreperous character flaw…the vehement need, nay, the demand, to receive love and approbation, especially from those you treat unfairly. What that’s about, perhaps only Dr. Freud knows. But if you’ll allow me, Doc, I’d say it’s an egoistic, near delusional need to be seen on a pantheonic level.
Or, it could just be a function of that famous, career-driving insecurity that has motivated the success of countless celebrities. In either case, Rivers leaves nothing to chance, her pounding mantra an obsessive caution that talent without ambition is a ticket to failure and the poorhouse. We pause to consider the hard work that goes into the magic of fame.
Miss Rivers’s travail is displayed as a microcosm of the human comedy, from familial happiness to defining one’s role in society. And even though, by the very nature of her occupation, the example is one of high relief, sympathetic viewers will nonetheless find hilariously validating the labor of love deliberated in “Joan Rivers: A Piece of Work.”
“Joan Rivers: A Piece of Work,” rated R, is an IFC release directed by Ricki Stern and Anne Sundberg, and features Joan Rivers, Melissa Rivers and Billy Sammeth. Running time: 84 minutes
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