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This documentary follows one year in the life of Joan Rivers, who sees herself first and foremost as an actress, with her life as a comedienne/writer just an extension of being an actress. Now at age 75, Rivers has faced her ups and downs in her forty plus year career, the year leading up to filming being a down compared to what she would have wanted, which is a calendar full of engagements with several engagements each day. That want is in part to support her opulent personal lifestyle, but is more a need to bolster her own sense of self-worth as a basically insecure person who is probably best known now for her overuse of cosmetic surgery rather than her professional work. She feels that Kathy Griffin, who she admires, is now getting all the engagements she would have gotten in her prime. During this year, Rivers is seen going from engagement to engagement, some big - such as a Kennedy Center Honors for George Carlin, a double bill with Don Rickles in New York, and her own celebrity... Written by
Joan Rivers is asked, "Don't we want to be loved for our real self?" To which she tellingly replies, "What's the real self?"
Joan Rivers: A Piece of Work is not funny even though you'd expect a year in the life of one of the world's funniest ladies to be so. But it is as documentaries go one of the best ever: It is uncompromising in depicting how a 75 year-old icon is working every minute of her day, not to sharpen her craft necessarily, but rather to make money to keep up a lavish lifestyle best exemplified by her Versailles-like apartment in New York.
Truth is, however, that she likes what she does better than anything else, a workaholic who makes people laugh. In the process she is ribald, abrasive, bitchy, and irreverent, attributes she displayed almost 50 years ago, when highly educated ladies just didn't do that kind of thing. But from the Tonight show with Johnny Carson through Celebrity Apprentice, she has done it all in comedy while taking gigs from Wisconsin to Juno, all to stay alive in a profession that eats its young and discards its seniors every day.
When she says, "Let me show you what fear is" and explicates by revealing a blank appointment page, she is speaking for every worker in show businessmost of whom face periods of inactivity regularly and bravely. Her fear of bombing with her act is almost as palpable and never more apparent than when she painfully puts down a heckler but suffers remorse for what it did to him, her audience, and of course her self confidence.
Yet the two most devastating events of her life, the suicide of husband Edgar and the ultimate rejection by Johnny Carson may have affected her most in 75 years. This doc is much more about suffering than laughter.
Rivers holds her acting talent above her comedic, a telling admission about the calculating, opportunistic foundation of her career, with comedy a mere avocation. Directors Riki Stern and Anne Sundberg skillfully keep the tension of uncertainty on Joan, as if the camera should be as close as possible to Joan's face to capture that actress's honesty.
"Actress" and "honesty" don't always go together, and they are in question here. How honest is any portrayal by a comic who keeps thousands of jokes on file and surgically alters her face as many times as she may change jewelry? On this topic, I remain skeptical; on the matter of this doc being successful deconstruction of show business's vagaries, it's a powerful work in progress.
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