‘Joan Rivers: A Piece of Work’ Reveals the Woman Behind the Face

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CHICAGO – One of the most revealing insights to be gleaned from “Joan Rivers: A Piece of Work” is the lifelong desire of its titular comedienne to be a serious actress. The sad irony is that Rivers has rendered her most vital acting tool (her face) utterly immobile, thus making her ineligible for any dramatic screen role, save for the Elephant Man.

Though some viewers may be initially reluctant to view Rivers’ plasticized face on the big screen, “A Piece of Work” forces its audience to look under the Botox mask and observe the angry, brilliant, brutally honest and fiercely insecure woman hiding beneath. It becomes quickly apparent that Rivers’s deformed features are the result of a desperate spirit that refuses to grow old, retire and be labeled a legend. She’s gradually become the punch-line of her own jokes about age, beauty, identity and especially plastic surgery. Some time after her husband Edgar committed suicide, Rivers joked that she was the reason he did it, because, while they were making love, she took the bag off her head.

Joan Rivers: A Piece of Work
Joan Rivers: A Piece of Work
Photo credit: IFC Films

Behind every self-deprecating comic is a tale of heartbreak, yet Rivers is anything but self-pitying. In fact, she never gives herself a break. When her calendar consists primarily of blank pages, she literally feels as if her entire life has been a failure. This is a woman bound and determined to either die laughing, or die in the midst of laughter elicited from the mouths of adoring fans. The stage has become her life. While coping with the loss of her husband, Rivers and her daughter Melissa co-starred in a TV-movie where they played themselves coping with Edgar’s death. Rivers admits that it “probably sounded sick” to most people, but it somehow proved to be “healing” for her in the long run.

Yet after several painful TV appearances along those lines, Rivers has gradually become an eyesore. Anyone seeking classic reruns on TV Land will be dismayed to see Andy Griffith get interrupted by a pop-up ad of Rivers wrestling bags of money to promote her show, “How’d You Get So Rich?” Such an unpleasant cameo will undoubtedly cause irritated viewers to reply, “How’d you get so stiff?” Though “A Piece of Work” doesn’t quite attempt to answer that question, it does generate genuine empathy for a woman who was once widely considered to be a national treasure. Cutting-edge female comics, from Kathy Griffin and Margaret Cho to Sarah Silverman, owe Rivers a great debt for the trails she’s been blazing since the mid-60s.

Joan Rivers: A Piece of Work
Joan Rivers: A Piece of Work
Photo credit: IFC Films

Filmmakers Ricki Stern and Annie Sundberg merely skim the surface of Rivers’s rise to stardom, as well as her ill-fated relationship with Johnny Carson, who refused to speak to her after she left his show to host her own. Instead of attempting to superficially summarize their subject’s life in a nutshell, Stern and Sundberg opt for more of a fly-on-wall approach, following Rivers through a year of her tightly scheduled, fast-paced, jam-packed life. We see the interiors of her house, exuding an extravagance that would’ve made Marie Antoinette blush. We see Rivers toiling away at an autobiographical play that earns rapturous applause from audiences, but is panned by critics (causing the discouraged star to ditch it). We meet Billy Sammeth, Rivers’s longtime manager who always seems to disappear exactly at the moment when he’s needed most. We also finally understand why Rivers participated in the humiliating “Celebrity Apprentice,” since the show would force her onto NBC, the network that refused to invite her back ever since she cut ties with Carson.

“A Piece of Work” is a masterful portrait of a life lived to the hilt. If the recent stand-up footage in the film is of any indication, Rivers is as raw and bracing as ever, mining the humor in every sacred topic imaginable. Her anger at life’s inherent unfairness has become the primary fuel behind her comedy, and laughter has become her source of healing. There’s an unforgettable moment when Rivers finds herself to be a hilarious fish out of water while performing at a casino in northern Wisconsin. Her joke about Helen Keller angers an audience member whose son is deaf. The heckling devolves into a shouting match, as Rivers defends the need for comedy in times of tragedy. Though Rivers ends up winning back her audience, she leaves the casino clearly rattled, and expresses her sympathy for the man, noting that his outburst probably gave him catharsis.

Perhaps Rivers’s startling candidness in this documentary will provide her with a considerable amount of catharsis. She certainly will have deserved it. Though Rivers will never be remembered as a serious actress, “A Piece of Work” proves to the cynical masses that this is one comedy legend who deserves to be taken seriously. Just don’t call her a legend.

‘Joan Rivers: A Piece of Work’ features Joan Rivers, Melissa Rivers, Larry A. Thompson, Mark Phillips, Kathy Griffin and Don Rickles. It was directed by Ricki Stern and Annie Sundberg. It opened on June 18th at the Landmark Century, Century 12 Evanston and the Landmark Renaissance Place. It is rated R.

HollywoodChicago.com staff writer Matt Fagerholm

Staff Writer

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