Joan Rivers: Beneath the Mask

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IFC Films

Joan Rivers - A Piece of Work

Outwardly, Joan Rivers is so stretched and brittle that many of us long ago gave up wondering what there might be inside. All that plastic surgery is the main culprit, obviously — physically she's been buffed and maximized to the point of being a wax doll. But her other trademark — the verbal brittleness, that sense of always being at a shrieking, raging boiling point — has been equally off-putting. You had to search for the comedy in the anger, and often as not the humor wasn't strong enough to offset the abusiveness of her words.

That's my uncharitable opinion of Joan Rivers, formed over four decades, starting with dreading her indelicate turns standing in for the sublimely urbane Johnny Carson on The Tonight Show in the 1980s. After watching Ricki Stern and Anne Sundberg's tender, empathetic documentary Joan Rivers: A Piece of Work, I feel a little guilty about my unkind perspective on the groundbreaking comedian. There's something about seeing an old, tired woman, 77 now, 75 then, pluckily boarding a plane in the middle of the night to get to her next semi-lousy gig — to her, performing is the equivalent of a blood transfusion — to remind you that she's far from wax.

These filmmakers, fresh off very different documentaries on Darfur (The Devil Came on Horseback) and the decline of American civil liberties (The End of America) actually get Rivers to cut the nasty shtick and talk to us. In their companionable, obviously relaxing hands, she is vulnerable and for the first time, fascinating. Rivers' comedy style is to shove people away, but in real life, she seems as loyal as the day is long (the same butler and cook have worked for her for 20 years). She has spent a lifetime being disdained and beaten down: most notably, she was fired from her own late night show in 1987, and then by the suicide a few months later of her husband Edgar Rosenberg. But she's never given up and gone away. It's a persistence both fearsome and admirable.

My guilt is somewhat assuaged by the fact that I'm sure Rivers — described by fellow comedian Kathy Griffiin (with affection and not a little competitiveness) as "a legendary bitch" — is just as tough on herself. Consider the scene in A Piece of Work where Rivers is preparing for a Kennedy Center tribute to the late George Carlin. Backstage, she's fretting about how many joke writers Jon Stewart employs compared to her, and her insecurity reveals as much about funny people as anything in 2002's documentary Comedian. As the announcer calls out the names of the participants, Rivers rates each of them. Dennis Leary is "clever," Stewart is "smart." Ben Stiller: "[pause] lucky."

Wedged between Bill Maher and Gary Shandling ("brilliant") is her own name. "Okay," she judges. It doesn't come off as false modesty; it's her assessment of her own skills, and it's fairly accurate. The strength of Stern and Sundberg's film is that they let her bomb sometimes. Rivers certainly can be wickedly funny, but not always, as anyone who has watched her over the years knows.

Stern and Sundberg include footage of Rivers in her youth, doing stand up in Wisconsin and New York, as well as on the set of 2009's Celebrity Apprentice (which she won). But they gloss over some of her most gruesome, best-known work: delivering rude, ignorant blather on the red carpet at the Academy Awards with her daughter Melissa. As a check against the seductive power of A Piece of Work, I went to YouTube looking for reminders of why I started switching the channel whenever I spotted her on Oscar night. It took three minutes to find Rivers trashing the beautiful, then 66-year- old Julie Christie's sartorial choice for the 2008 Oscar ceremony. "I think after a certain time, certain actresses should just be locked away," Rivers sniped. This from a woman who in the documentary bemoans the fact that at her Comedy Central roast, "every joke is going to be plastic surgery or old."

Rivers knows longevity is her greatest distinction, but it's not exactly her friend. She abhors aging, primarily, it seems, because it will eventually rob her of performance (unless she's lucky enough to go out in the middle of an act). A Piece of Work is too maternal and possibly too invested (Stern's parents are friends of Rivers) to delve into the incongruity between the comedian's own refusal to depart the public eye and her slaps at other entertainers like Christie. (She could counter, as she does in the movie to a heckler in the midwest, that cruelty is part and parcel of comedy, but something like the Christie comment isn't remotely funny.) But by painting a portrait of a self-aware woman desperate to stay relevant, they offer an explanation for why Rivers has sometimes chosen to debase herself and others: She was just happy to be invited. Remarkably, thanks to this documentary, we hope for the sake of this smart, vibrant, apparently good-hearted woman, that the invitations keep coming.