What makes Joan Rivers run? Take your pick. Relentless drive, switchblade wit, ever-simmering insecurity, anger, lust for attention and a lifestyle that would bankrupt an oil sheik. "Joan Rivers: A Piece of Work," a hilarious and unsettling look at the rewards and costs of compulsive celebrity, shows Rivers in all her multifaceted glory. Not all the angles are flattering. That's OK with the comic, who is happy in her own Botoxed skin.
The film opens with an unsparing closeup of Rivers fresh out of bed, without makeup. She paints on her features with perfectionist intensity and the familiar face emerges -- surgically lifted, certainly, but not bad for pushing 80. The film brings that tone of unapologetic candor to its subject. Co-directors Rikki Stern and Annie Sundberg followed Rivers for more than a year as she signed books, played flyover casinos and gamy comedy flea pits, performed in glitzy awards ceremonies and staged an autobiographical show on London's West End.
She declares, "When I am onstage is the only time I am truly happy." Sadly, that appears to be true. She feeds on spotlights, laughter and the love of strangers like a ravenous piranha.
The film shows Rivers' early appearances on "The Ed Sullivan Show" and "The Tonight Show" with Johnny Carson, black-and-white time capsules from a distant era when she had her own face. Her place in comedy history is established, opening doors for female comedians in a period when it was easier for women to break into the astronaut program. Her sharp, self-deprecating shtick shook up network TV censors but won her legions of fans.
With success came the trappings of luxury, and a never-ending cycle of getting and spending. To maintain her homes, entourage and travels, Rivers stays in perpetual motion. Blank pages in her appointment book strike fear into her heart, and she works her phone like a commission salesman. Rivers is aware that her life is over-the-top -- she calls her gilt-and-crystal Manhattan apartment "where Marie Antoinette would live if she had the money." Rivers appears to be trying to fill a bottomless emotional hole with jewelry and furs.
Episodic yet revealing, the film shows Rivers as a woman who is generous to her staff and kind to the needy (every year before hosting a lavish Thanksgiving party, she spends hours delivering meals to shut-ins.) Her relations with her family are more problematic. She's sharp with her daughter, Melissa, who tells the filmmakers she felt that "the career" was like a more favored sibling while she was growing up. Rivers' husband, Edgar Rosenberg, who committed suicide when her Fox TV talk show foundered, is presented as more a business partner than a soulmate.
The film rounds out its portrait of the standup with talking-head contributions from Don Rickles and Kathy Griffin, performance clips and even a verbal brawl where she mercilessly unloads on a heckler. The best biographical documentaries make us rethink people we thought we already understood. This film will surely make admirers and skeptics see Rivers with fresh eyes.
Colin Covert • 612-673-7186