For my parents’ generation, Joan Rivers was a trailblazing comedienne, paving the way for funny ladies with foul mouths. For my generation, Joan Rivers is a joke, a walking, talking plastic surgery disaster who criticizes celebrity fashion on the red carpet and who bore an equally judgmental daughter. In Joan Rivers: A Piece of Work, a documentary by Ricki Stern and Annie Sundberg, we follow Rivers, now in her mid-70s, through the ups and downs of her current career. Where most other people would have thrown in the towel, giving up while they were still on top, she is convinced she can resurrect herself.
It’s easy to understand why; Rivers is a ragingly insecure woman. She writes a play, performs it in Scotland and England, and then throws the production away after reading a few iffy London reviews. She can’t help comparing herself and her skills to the other presenters at an awards ceremony for George Carlin, and the jokes from a Comedy Central roast in her honor get to her. In what may be the most revealing moment of the film, Rivers admits that no man has ever told her she was beautiful. She needs approval, and she’ll need it until the day she dies.
Mainly, the movie follows a woman constantly straddling the line between pop culture popularity and total insignificance. Rivers’ biggest fear is an empty schedule. She wants to perform and act and sign books, and she needs to make money. She’ll make a cruise ship appearance for a hefty paycheck. She’ll be on the Celebrity Apprentice.
And that’s the problem with the film right there. It’s not so much concerned with who Rivers was; it focuses on who she is now: a desperate woman longing to remain relevant. It would have been more interesting to see how she got to this point in her life than how she’s dealing with it.
Very little time is dedicated to what her career meant during her heyday and why the audience should think she is important. It does establish that Rivers was shocking for her time and that she found huge success with Johnny Carson on The Tonight Show, eventually becoming his permanent guest host. There are some scenes dedicated to her family, how she met her husband and what her relationship with her daughter is like. And they give Kathy Griffin and Don Rickles a few minutes of face time to praise Rivers.
But did you know she was once bulimic? Neither did I, and I didn’t learn that fact from the film — I learned it from Wikipedia. I wanted to see more of her late night stand-up appearances and her thinly veiled abortion jokes. And they never talk about her red carpet work.
A Piece of Work is a film for true fans of Rivers, people who have followed her through the highs and lows and appreciate who she is. But if you’re clueless, you might wonder why you should even care.
Joan Rivers: A Piece of Work premieres in Charleston at the Citadel Mall IMAX Stadium 16 on July 30. For more information, call (843) 769-7600.