Early in Ricki Stern and Anne Sundeberg's extraordinary documentary portrait Joan Rivers: A Piece of Work, the legendary comic's manager offers up an assessment of the general perception of his client. "Right now," he says flatly, "they see her as a plastic surgery freak who's past due." Full disclosure: I was one of those people. My primary impressions of Rivers were of a, yes, plastic surgery freak, braying on a red carpet on E! (their exclamation point, not mine). I knew her as the woman who quit the gig guest-hosting Carson for a Fox competitor that flopped miserably; I knew her as one of the C-grade schlubs on "Celebrity" Apprentice (my quotes, not theirs). What I didn't know her as was funny, or fascinating. In Stern and Sundberg's excellent documentary, she is both.
The film, subtitled "a year in the life of a legend," begins with startlingly tight close-ups of Rivers' (badly) sculpted face as she is made up. The proximity is shocking, but appropriate preparation for the picture to follow; they may be the only time we see her out of her make-up, but it is not the last time she lets her guard down. Rivers will turn 75 years old in the course of the film, but she isn't slowing down. She is, in her manager's words, "a chronic workaholic." Early on, we see her and her assistant Jocelyn going over her "books"--the schedules of her various appearances and engagements. They're looking too empty to Joan. She looks through an old book and sees busier days. "That's a good page," she says wistfully. "That's happiness."
Stern and Sundeberg rotate between verité-style home and work footage, interviews, and Rivers' biography. There are fantastic vintage clips of her on Jack Paar, Mike Douglas, and Carson, clippings, photos, memories. She's surprisingly candid--she talks about her surgeries, talks about her marriage, her difficulties balancing work and family. "She referred to her career as 'The Career,'" her daughter Melissa remembers. "And it occurred to me one day that I had a sibling." And she remembers the rough years--the ugly break-up with Carson, the failure of the Fox show, the suicide of her husband Edgar (which, oddly enough, she and Melissa reenacted for a TV movie, a move she claims was rehabilitative but still seems mighty weird). The dynamic with Melissa is quite interesting--nobody sees through Joan quite like her daughter, and when they do Celebrity Apprentice together, we get a peek inside their relationship (Melissa seeking affirmation, or chastising her mother for turning her insecurities into criticism of their co-stars).
Rivers' involvement in that reality show might make one question the authenticity of her portrait here; is it an honest impression, or a calculated performance for the camera? I'm honestly inclined to think the latter--or at least, that it's as honest a portrait as we're going to get. Rivers has been performing so long, it could be said that she is always "on," that the clear boundaries between person and persona evaporated decades ago. Whatever the case, the primary takeaway from Joan Rivers: A Piece of Work is how vulnerable she is. She pours her heart into an autobiographical monologue/biographical play called "Joan Rivers: A Work in Progress by a Life in Progress"; it kills at the Edinburgh festival, but when West End reviews are just so-so, she shuts it down instead of taking it to Broadway (her previously stated goal). Why? Because she was so badly hurt by the Broadway critics when she last appeared there--in 1972. "No one will ever take me seriously as an actress," she says, and you can see the pain in her eyes. She fronts that she's a tough broad, but the barbs hurt.
As a protective measure, she's her own worst critic; when she appears at the Kennedy Center tribute to George Carlin, she says of her fellow presenters, "they're all gonna be so much funnier than I am." But the toughest hits come when she subjects herself to the indignities of a Comedy Central roast because she'll make some badly-needed money. "They keep telling you it's an honor," she muses. "If I had invested wisely, I wouldn't be doing this." Clips of the roast are seen, and the cracks are predictably vile; the filmmakers slow down the tape and hold on Rivers as she tries to keep her brave face on. Moments like that might stack the deck a tad too much in the icon's favor, but who cares? Our goodwill toward Joan Rivers is strong enough even without those moments; she's a survivor, she's a hard worker, and most of all, she's hilarious.
The 1.78:1 anamorphic widescreen image is a little shaky--not unexpected for a documentary, where so much footage is captured on the fly, in less than ideal circumstances. Some darker scenes come across pretty grainy, while skin tones tend to skew a little orange (even taking Joan's heavy make-up into account). Compression artifacts pop up fairly frequently as well, particularly in backgrounds. But black levels are stable and details are crisp; it's not a great video presentation, but it's good enough.
The English 5.1 mix is, again, about what you'd expect for a documentary--the dialogue and interviews are clean in the center channel, but the surround channels are mostly underused (primarily for music). Opportunities for separation--like the new nightclub footage--are passed up. But the jokes and the interviews are what's important, and there are no issues there whatsoever.
English SDH and Spanish subtitles are also offered.
Now, here's a real treat: the Audio Commentary features not only directors Ricki Stern and Anne Sundeberg, but Joan herself, who has a great time making fun of herself, making fun of the film, and adding and emphasizing additional thoughts on the onscreen events. It's a terrific track, with plenty of extra laughs, well worth a spin.
The nine Deleted Scenes (29:12) are a bit of a mixed blessing; there's some good stuff in there (like the scene where she goes to vote, or her description of her "do not resuscitate" instructions: "Don't bring me back unless I can get onstage and do an hour"), but many of the scenes are presented without the sharp editing that makes the film proper so excellent. So we end up with endless scenes of mundanities, like a full two minutes of Joan and her assistant getting a hot dog or a long, rather dull scene of her talking about her dogs. These appear to be outtakes rather than actual "deleted scenes"; the ones that have been sliced up a little play much better.
The Sundance Q&A (12:08), with her fielding questions after a festival screening, is rapid-fire fun; she's really "on" in front of this audience that has clearly loved the film (and, consequently, her). The film's original Theatrical Trailer (2:25) and two TV Spots (:32 each) close out the bonus features.
Clips are interspersed throughout the film of Rivers working new material in a small Manhattan cabaret, and she is explosively funny (and filthy as hell). She shows, in her office, a card catalog--30 years of jokes, alphabetized by subject, typed up on 3 x 5s. This is what she does. We see her out on the road, working the showroom of a Wisconsin casino (looking over her accommodations, she advises an assistant to get the check before the show), and she slays them--and when a heckler interrupts to protest the offensiveness of a joke, threatening to stop the show cold, she burns the guy right down to the ground. It's an amazing piece of footage, but it's reflex for her. This is what she does. "This is where I belong," she confesses. "The only time I'm truly, truly happy is when I'm on a stage." After seeing Joan Rivers: A Piece of Work, we're inclined to agree.
Jason lives with his wife Rebekah and their daughter Lucy in New York. He holds an MA in Cultural Reporting and Criticism from NYU. He is film editor for Flavorwire and is a contributor to Salon, the Atlantic, and several other publications. His first book, Pulp Fiction: The Complete History of Quentin Tarantino's Masterpiece, was released last fall by Voyageur Press. He blogs at Fourth Row Center and is yet another critic with a Twitter feed.