At 75 years old, it seems Joan Rivers is more dedicated to her work than ever before, and at the beginning of Ricki Stern and Anne Sunberg’s fascinating documentary the comedienne makes it clear she’s a workaholic. The only problem – her calender is blindingly white, another low point in a career with more ups and downs in a decade most have in their whole careers. But underneath the ebbs and flows of show business is this dedication to craft, anchored by the simultaneous fear of losing the opportunity to practice it. This dichotomy makes Joan Rivers: A Piece of Work a revealing portrait of a master on the verge of inconsequence, at least in her own mind.
It’s a year in the life type deal, an expose of a fading icon attempting to stamp another passionate project of her own design. Yet A Piece of Work shows Rivers at her most vulnerable during the collapse of another such venture. Much of the first half deals with the failing of River’s one-woman show off broadway, and the process is both invigorating and heart-breaking. As an artist, Rivers knows she doesn’t have many chances left, and when the play crumbles after a stellar opening in Edinburgh we feel her deep disappointment.
A Piece of Work is filled with these types of interludes, some brazenly funny like when River’s is on stage at any number of her stand-up shows, and some incredibly sad as when her long-time manager seems to simply fade from existence without any explanation. But Rivers remains an old school tigress of Hollywood-land, a veteran of the stage, small screen and big, and she knows that the work is the one thing that gets her through. So when Rivers’ career turns yet again, this time upward with a win on Donald Trump’s Celebrity Apprentice, there’s a deep sense of pride and fulfillment in her smile.
As filmmakers, Stern and Sundberg strike an exceptional balance between observer and questioner. They allow Rivers to occasionally go diva without judging her for it, yet still dig deep into the performer’s insecurities and traumatic histories with Johnny Carson and men in general. And thematically the film is grand, using the dreaded white calender as a brilliant book-end to an experience filled with twists and turns, crashes and rebirths. As a comedienne and actress Joan Rivers is as funny as they come, but as a worker she’s first and foremost a hard-nosed Phoenix.