The first shots we see in Joan Rivers: A Piece of Work are extreme close-ups of the puffy, vein-flecked face of the film’s eponymous subject as an assistant applies streaks of brown makeup to her skin. Thus Ricki Stern and Annie Sundeberg open their film portrait of Rivers by not only directly confronting the question of her age and the copious amount of cosmetic surgery she’s endured (facts with which she’s more closely associated these days than her storied on-stage career), but by symbolically evoking the blurry boundary line between persona and personality, a defining threshold for a comedian who uses every detail of her private life as fodder for her act. In a clip from a radio show the filmmakers include among the movie’s archival footage, and one that says much about their subject’s relationship with performance, the host quizzes Rivers by asking, “Don’t we want to be loved for our real self?,” to which the guest curtly replies, “What’s the real self?”
What indeed, when dealing with such a perpetually image-conscious figure as this, one who insists, above all else, on her role as an actor? Getting to the bottom of the individual behind the makeup, whose application Rivers informs us is the first thing she does every morning, may be the task the filmmakers have posed for themselves, but despite her occasional bursts of unexpected vulnerability, there’s the sense that their subject may be all surface. Observing Rivers throughout a year’s worth of work, interviewing her and her associates and mixing in vintage archival clips to fill in the gaps, the filmmakers let their subject mold her own image in front of their camera. A portrait of the artist as a stubborn 75-year-old woman, the film reveals Rivers as a tart-tongued, dedicated, and occasionally insecure woman who’ll accept any assignment because she needs the money to maintain her ultra-comfortable lifestyle, but also because she loves the work.
“Let me show you fear,” she tells the camera, pulling out an empty date book—in a moment of vulnerability that feels both staged and authentic—and revealing the gleaming white pages which indicate a lack of engagements for the future. As the film progresses, the book fills up bit by bit and Rivers hops flights to Wisconsin and Minneapolis to play small gigs, considers doing an ad for penis enlargement pills, and prepares for her upcoming appearance on Celebrity Apprentice. “Joan will turn nothing down,” her assistant informs us, and the film, which is as much about the vicissitudes of the comedy industry as about any single individual, makes clear the amount of whoring necessary to continue one’s career for five decades, even if one’s already an established “semi-legend” as one of the movie’s titles describes its subject.
“If I had invested wisely, I wouldn’t be doing this,” Rivers says of one gig, but even when doing work-for-hire, she’s clearly in her element, letting rip a filthy joke about her daughter turning down a topless Playboy shoot to an appreciative crowd at a Wisconsin casino. (“I think you should ask for another $200,000 and show your pussy,” she “advises” her daughter, “that’s what I think.”) There’s plenty to laugh at in Stern and Sundberg’s picture, both in the footage of Rivers on stage and in front of the filmmakers’ camera. Which, in the end, may amount to more or less the same thing, since, for Joan, this film is just one more performance. If it’s finally impossible to distinguish between Rivers’s “real” self and her persona, that’s because there really isn’t that much difference. For the workaholic subject of Stern and Sundberg’s fascinating cine-portrait, she’s never more herself than when she’s acting.