Joan Rivers bares her soul in documentary 'A Piece of Work'

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Joan Rivers was always much more than an aging, taut-faced comedian firing questions and slinging insults about fashions on the red carpet.

NBC's "Celebrity Apprentice," which saw Ms. Rivers emerge as the winner over 14 younger competitors, proved that, and the documentary "Joan Rivers -- A Piece of Work" underscores it.


'Joan Rivers -- A Piece of Work'

3 stars = Good
Ratings explained
  • Rating: R for language and sexual humor.

Filmmakers Ricki Stern and Annie Sundberg spent 14 months chronicling the now 77-year-old performer who may be the hardest working woman in show business. They open with Ms. Rivers applying a thick layer of foundation to her face, and it's a sign that the performer is about to be laid bare (for the most part) for the audience.

"Only time I'm truly, truly happy is when I'm on stage," Ms. Rivers later reveals. "I am a performer. That is my life."

Ms. Rivers was a workaholic before the word was invented and even now equates a packed schedule, scribbled the old-fashioned way in pen in a softcover datebook, with happiness. The documentary captures her as she's turning 75, worried about "the one mountain that you can't overcome" of age and rebounding with Donald Trump's reality show and other projects.

She suffers through a Comedy Central roast that is, as she feared, filled with cruel jokes about plastic surgery and being old. Even before the event, she had advised others, "Save your money when you're younger, [so] that you don't have to whore yourself out when you're old, to be roasted on Comedy Central."

Ms. Rivers, who lives in a lavishly decorated apartment with Old World accents, worries about money a lot, but she also employs an agent, a manager, a business manager, a publicist, two assistants and a lawyer.

As is the documentary style these days, Ms. Stern and Ms. Sundberg ("The Devil Came on Horseback," "The Trials of Darryl Hunt") use no narrator but allow Ms. Rivers and others to speak for themselves.

There is the public Joan Rivers, brash and often foul-mouthed, which explains the movie's R rating, and the private Joan Rivers who spends Thanksgiving delivering meals to the sick and reminding friends and family of their blessings at an elaborate dinner she annually hosts.

The filmmakers and producers make excellent use of old clips, including from "The Tonight Show With Johnny Carson" before the late-night host severed all ties because Ms. Rivers accepted her own show with a rival network, but leave many questions unasked or unanswered.

Ms. Rivers responds to a heckler with a detail about her mother, which deserves a follow-up. She struggles with her long-time personal manager before firing him (he has since sued, upset by how she characterizes his reliability in the movie), and we never hear his side of the story.

On a more frivolous note, Ms. Rivers never shares how she has maintained, for 44 years, a peripatetic schedule that would exhaust a younger woman. She is not exactly nibbling on pretzels in coach, but she is landing in Minneapolis one morning at 3:30.

A movie called "Making Trouble," which played at the Pittsburgh Jewish-Israeli Film Festival in 2008, paid tribute to Ms. Rivers along with five other female comics.

That documentary hinted Ms. Rivers was a piece of work, and this one confirms it, although even it cannot begin to paint a full portrait of one tough and funny survivor who refuses to retire. And now we know why.

Opens today at the Manor Theater in Squirrel Hill.


Movie editor Barbara Vancheri: bvancheri@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1632. Read her Mad About the Movies blog at post-gazette.com/movies.


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