Thursday, April 22, 2010

Tribeca ’10: Joan Rivers—a Piece of Work

Say what you will about Joan Rivers, but she is most definitely a survivor. For over forty years, the show business icon has endured the rough and tumble world of comedy, as well as painful personal tragedies, yet she lived to joke about it all. While there are plenty of laughs, it is her resiliency that will challenge preconceptions of the entertainer in Ricki Stern & Annie Sundberg’s Joan Rivers—A Piece of Work (trailer here), which screens during this year’s Tribeca Film Festival.

In 1968 Johnny Carson changed Rivers’s life. Her appearance on the Tonight Show made her one of the hottest stand-ups in America and a trailblazer for every woman who followed in her footsteps. However, as Piece opens, Rivers career is stagnating. Not getting bookings, she is hoping to reignite her career with an autobiographical play. Failing that, she also signed on to Donald Trump’s Celebrity Apprentice, her first appearance on NBC since leaving her gig as the regular Tonight Show guest host for her ill-fated Fox talk show.

Rivers’s work ethic is otherworldly. She never turns down a paying gig. Partly it is due to the demands of keeping up her Versailles-like apartment and her considerable staff. (Generously, she pays the private school tuition for the children of all her employees.) Yet, more than mere financial motivations, Rivers is clearly driven by her own insecurities and persistent need for audience approval.

Watching Piece, you have to give Rivers credit for endurance. She treks out to Wisconsin for a decidedly unglamorous casino gig, only to face a disruptive patron offended by one of her jokes. She is tough and she is funny, but like Dangerfield, she never seems to get respect. Obviously, Stern & Sundberg were completely enamored with her, despite Rivers’s constant jokes that they hoped she would die during filming for the publicity it would generate. Their treatment of her is unquestionably sympathetic, but they still broached many delicate subjects, including the suicide of her husband Edgar and her often difficult relationship with her daughter Melissa.

Piece goes way beyond average celebrity reportage. This is Joan Rivers unvarnished, capturing some honestly embarrassing careers nadirs and revisiting some of the most trying moments in a very dramatic life. Along the way, we hear a fair amount of her recent material, and yes, she works fairly blue (at least in clubs like the Cutting Room).

Frankly, this film is way hipper than it sounds. Smartly cut, Piece has a very satisfying narrative arc, documenting fourteen eventful months of her life. Indeed, the Rivers that emerges on-screen is a truly compelling individual. A very effective documentary portrait, it screens at Tribeca on Monday (4/26), Wednesday (4/28), and Thursday (4/29).