A lot has been made of the opening shots of Joan Rivers: A Piece of Work, which capture the cosmetically enhanced comedian having makeup applied to her bare face. The suggestion is that the documentary, from directors Ricki Stern and Anne Sundberg, will be giving us the unvarnished truth. But notice that the sequence consists entirely of insert shots – a nose here, a cheek there. We never get the full picture until the mask is on.
As raw as A Piece of Work is, you get the feeling this isn’t the full picture either. The relentless Rivers, seen performing live standup multiple times a day at age 75, is always “on.” She appears to be genetically incapable of being unguarded. If Stern and Sundberg are never able to break down those defenses, maybe that’s the point. This is a fiercely intelligent, maniacally driven, crushingly funny comedian who comes across as less a human being than a sentient career.
The movie’s best moments, then, are those that manage to take us behind the veil of her life’s work. Appearing at a Wisconsin casino – a landscape she hilariously eviscerates during the limo ride to the gig – Rivers is heckled for being insensitive. She’s briefly thrown off, then recoups with a startling mixture of venom, wit and unexpected compassion. After the show, still flustered, she dissects the encounter step by step, explaining the panic she felt over the prospect of losing the audience.
Rivers comes across as more vulnerable here than when talking about far more personal things, such as her relationship with her daughter, Melissa, or the loss of her husband, Edgar Rosenberg, who committed suicide in 1987. Discussing Rosenberg, she’s angry yet calmer than when on stage. “He left us, high and dry,” she matter-of-factly says.
It’s Melissa who makes the observation that “all stand-ups are innately insecure,” and despite her resilience and toughness, Rivers certainly seems to be true to that form. You can especially sense it when the documentary addresses the comedian’s infamous dalliances with plastic surgery. She argues that a woman in entertainment cannot survive unless she is pretty – in other words, that this is a standard of beauty being imposed upon her. But at another point, Rivers says that she can’t stand to look at herself in the mirror without makeup, a confession suggesting an insecurity that comes from within.
Whatever the source of her self-doubt, Rivers combats it with a ferocious comedic sensibility. “I’m furious about everything,” she says. What she seems especially furious about here is the inevitability of aging and being relegated to icon status. As Rivers tells comic Kathy Griffin, who repeatedly tries to send platitudes her way, she’s not about to cede anything. A Piece of Work is, among other things, a forceful middle finger at the notion of aging gracefully. Now in her late 70s, after 45 years as a star of one sort or another, Joan Rivers still hopes to make it big.