As she keeps pointing out in this clear-eyed documentary, Joan Rivers is 75, but she’s as driven as ever. Joan Rivers: A Piece of Work shows its subject running after the electric rabbit of fame, with insecurity, resentment, and an insatiable need for acceptance nipping at her heels. It would be a tragedy if she weren’t so damn funny.
Surprisingly funny, in fact—and surprisingly angry. If you’ve only seen her on network TV, A Piece of Work has news for you: Rivers can swear like Richard Pryor, her live act includes jokes about anal sex, and when a heckler attacks her, she rips him to shreds. Talking about her early career, she tells filmmakers Ricki Stern and Ann Sundberg how transgressive she was for the times in the ’60s. What she doesn’t have to say, since the film says it for her, is that she still has the power to shock, and Lord knows that’s not easy to do these days.
This movie made me think about Comedian, a documentary about Jerry Seinfeld that apparently reflected its subject’s personality as neatly as this one reflects Rivers’s. The Seinfeld of Comedian was part of a neurotic, intensely competitive, but close-knit community of comedians who, like cops, had far more in common with each other than with regular folk. The Rivers of A Piece of Work is usually alone, though she’s sometimes attended by somebody whose main focus is her needs: her patient daughter, Melissa; her New York or L.A. personal assistant; the couple that keeps her ludicrously opulent Upper East Side apartment running; or her manager of many years, who she parts with during the filming of the movie. She feels sorry for herself for being so lonely (Rivers cries a lot in this movie, always for herself), but Melissa points out that her mother brings on the isolation herself, making no effort to reach out to other people and burying herself in her Blackberry in public places. And sure enough, even when she’s talking to one of her most ardent fans, Rivers seems withdrawn, her face generally averted and her side of the conversation limited to a happy murmur or a “Thank you.” Maybe it’s partly embarrassment about her angry-doll face, which is so distorted by her compulsion for plastic surgery that it’s messed up even her relationship with the cameras she craves. (“Be nice,” she says to one set of photographers. “Not too close.”)
True to his public persona, Seinfeld revealed almost nothing of his private life in his movie, but Rivers happily fillets herself here, analyzing the anger that fuels her comedy, her relationships with Melissa and her husband Edgar, and her bottomless need to be on top. She’s always funny, except when she starts feeling sorry for herself, and the more clearly her toxic mix of self-pity and self-loathing and the black hole of insecurity and rage at her center come into focus, the more impressive it is that she can extract so much humor from them.
Rivers has always struck me as the kind of woman who appeals more to a certain type of gay man than to women like me, with all that bitchy competitiveness, how far she’ll go to look the way women are “supposed” to look, and the contempt she rains down on women—most famously Liz Tayor—who violate that code and “let themselves go.” A Piece of Work didn’t turn me into a fan, but that’s not what it’s after. Instead, and much more interestingly, it showed me what drives this old greyhound, and why she can’t bear the thought of leaving the track.
Elise Nakhnikian has been writing about movies since the best way to learn about them was through alternative weeklies. She is currently the movie reviewer for TimeOFF. She also has her own blog, Girls Can Play, and a Twitter account.