Joan Rivers: A Piece of Work (2010) Poster

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A very complex individual
John Gilpatrick (jlg310)3 October 2010
The problem I usually have with documentaries is that, while I find them enlightening, I rarely connect to them on an emotional level. My intellect is stimulated, but I don't usually feel anything. The last documentary that made me feel anything was "Sicko." "Joan Rivers: A Piece of Work" succeeds in the same way. Here's a woman who is a bit of a joke and an easy Hollywood punching bag. But she shows herself to be quite a complex individual. She's of course funny and a workaholic. She's also quite vulnerable and doesn't take criticism well at all. At times, she's quite likable and very sympathetic. Other times, she seems twisted and self-absorbed. I suppose the real Rivers is a little of both. She's also a joy to spend 90 minutes in a theater with, should the opportunity present itself to you.

The film opens with a shot that tells you everything you need to know about this film and its intentions. The shot is an extreme close-up of Rivers without any makeup on. For someone so presumably consumed with her looks, this is a surprising image that tells you this film is going to show you the real Rivers. Like her or not (and many won't), this is her.

The rest of the film is loosely broken up into three sections. The first introduces us to the woman and follows Rivers as she develops an autobiographical play and performs it in the UK. The second follows her during her time on "The Celebrity Apprentice." And the final one shows her on the road across America doing comedy shows. Interspersed with these segments are sidebars about Rivers' past—her marriage, her time with Johnny Carson on "The Tonight Show," her relationship with her daughter Melissa, and her annual Thanksgiving charity work.

The two biggest things I took away from the film are that Rivers is obsessive (desperate?) about working and that she is incredibly insecure—perhaps the two complement each other. At one point, she is trying to book a commercial. She tells the ad agency's representative that she'll wear diapers, anything, to land a gig. After seeing this film, I believe she would. She's also incredibly self-doubting. When her play opens in London to good, not great, reviews, she immediately decides it won't see the light of day in New York. She says she wouldn't be able to bear the criticism. And when she agrees to do a Comedy Central roast—well, let's just say, it's not pretty.

One of the most enlightening, and in some ways off-putting, scenes in the film is when she gets heckled at a show in rural Wisconsin. Rivers makes a joke about hating kids but thinking Helen Keller would be tolerable, and a man yells that he thinks she isn't funny, but mean-spirited. Rivers lays into him. She doesn't hold back at all, and while I hold the belief that comedians should be able to defend themselves as they see fit against hecklers, her expletive-laden tirade crossed a few lines. What was so telling about this scene, though, was just how insecure Rivers is. When one man, a nobody in her life, criticizes her, she viciously lashes out.

I really did find this film fascinating for just how complicated it made its star seem. In addition to that, it's also quite funny. Rivers hasn't lost much in 75 years. I'd argue that her best bits are the more recent ones. Most documentaries are intellectual exercises, but not this one. It felt refreshing—not at all like sitting through a lecture. I wasn't a fan of Rivers before. I'm not sure I'm a fan of Rivers now. But a can definitely say I'm a fan of "Joan Rivers: A Piece of Work," and I would recommend it to just about anyone.
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Brilliant and Outrageous
clg23819 June 2010
After seeing the trailer, my expectations were moderately high. The movie far exceeds them. It is screamingly funny (Joan Rivers is screamingly funny) and poignant as well. I am partial to people who have a passion and work their hearts out; Joan Rivers exemplifies this. As a writer who's seen ups and downs, I found her up-and-down trajectory inspirational. The humor is often raunchy and always hilarious. Because she cannot do her best jokes on television, I found the movie broadened my perspective on what she is able to do (a lot!). If you've ever liked her jokes, definitely go see this movie. While it's true that the film maker could have dug a bit deeper into some of the darker subjects, I think that would have drastically changed the amazing balance between comedy and seriousness for the worse. A lot is conveyed without belaboring the difficult issues. Although Joan Rivers was virtually in every frame (a few exceptions where some people spoke about her), I never tired of seeing and, especially, hearing her. She has a store of funny and the ability to tap into it, whatever else is happening.
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Joan Rivers: A Piece of Work - 9/10
jnguyen4611716 December 2010
I was surprised of the movie not being recognized by the Academy of Documentary. I guess they don't want anything to do with Joan Rivers, and that's the whole point of the documentary. The doc started out with Joan Rivers' lowpoint of her career (when she's already 70 years old), and it progresses with Rivers working her way up again. The film demonstrates how the once comedic icon and well known star turned into "a piece of work". With her comedic talents blending with her sad emotions, Joan Rivers: A Piece of Work is a snub that the Academy missed out on. OscarBuzz: NONE, that's the point! The Academy is missing out a a great film that shows the love for Joan Rivers and her career. She may be the one 70 year-old that still loves and wants to do her job.
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a piece of (hard!) work
Brian Whisenant30 June 2010
Warning: Spoilers
Also located at my blog (with many more!), Awards Wiz! (

A piece of work--an obvious double meaning, right? Referring to the plastic surgery, but also to her brashness. I would go a step further and say the title refers to her incredible career and work ethic.

"In order to get struck by lightning, you have to stand in the rain."

While this movie affected me on so many levels, it is this quote near the end of the film spoken by Rivers's agent that sticks with me most. It reminded me of every crossroad I have ever reached when times were difficult and decisions had to be made. There are so many chances to give up because it not easy to stay on the path. Rivers shows us what it really takes to not only "make it" but stay in this biz called show. What does it really take? In one scene Rivers tells her daughter that being an actor/performer is about rejection. So many people would give up and come in out of the rain. But there are the handful of people who stay out long enough to get hit by lightning...once. Then there are people like Joan Rivers. She gets hit, but then she goes inside when the rain stops only to venture back out the moment the first drop falls to do it all over again.

This film has been floating around since the Sundance Film Festival, and I have heard and read a few interviews with Rivers discussing the film. So, I knew the movie was going to strip away the public persona of Rivers as the joke of a poster woman for plastic surgery. But I was still unprepared to see her in this manner. And not just the vulnerability factor. I had no idea how hard she works, how persistent she is, and how much acting REALLY means to her. This lack of knowledge is partly because my generation knows her mostly from her red carpet appearances. Needless to say that part of her career is a torrential downpour, if you know what I mean. Honestly though, how many times have we seen her lacking her JOAN RIVERS persona-- whether on E!, TV Guide or even The Tonight Show? Almost never. And why should we, Joan might ask. What we see is Joan at work. There is really no reason for us to see anything else. Thank goodness that this doc actually gave us one. And the best parts are when she is on the road!

When Rivers goes to small town America to do her act, she is obviously slumming compared to what she is used to at home in NYC. But she never really complains, outside of a joke. At least not until a patron at the act heckles her. And it's less complaining and more defending what she loves--her art and what she feels should be clear to everyone. If you can't laugh at the bad you are in a hell of a lot of trouble. And in that moment she keeps going, strong as ever. She is one professional who simply can't quit, partly because she isn't ready to give up her fabulous lifestyle, and partly due to the fact that she hasn't run out of things to say. But mostly (I think) because she absolutely loves it.

We obviously have a great subject, but in lesser hands this film wouldn't be what it is. Never once did I even wonder where the film was headed and I never once wandered in any way off the path the Stern and Sundberg set for me. I simply watched a bit of perfect organic storytelling. Even the jokes are so impeccably placed it wasn't until I burst into laughter, then hearing my fellow audience members also laugh (yes, just like her shows there were a few groans of uncomfortable-ness) that I was taken out of that blissful life-forgetting trance that I strive for in the cinema.

The brilliant storytelling doesn't stop with her work ethic. We also get to see much deeper into her relationship with her daughter, told in such a simple way in just a few scenes thanks to their stint on Celebrity Apprentice (one in a car on the way to the first day on set and another in a hallway after Joan apparently (we don't see the actual event) shuts down at a cast meet and greet.) I almost cringed at the mention of Celebrity Apprentice, but I stuck with it...for Joan...because I know she had to stick with it. It was a job she needed to take for so many reasons, which you will discover watching the film yourself. The biggest reason was one she didn't seem to even grasp...winning! (lightning!)

The big question is (at least for me...and this site!) how long the lightning storm will last. She talks about how the critics never really embrace her. But they certainly have with this film. Now...will the Academy embrace her? In the documentary category, celebrity docs (The September Issue, Tyson, Valentino: The Last Emperor) don't do so well. Heck. They don't even get nominated. But the Academy loves a comeback. And although Joan might say, "what comeback? I never went anywhere," in terms of acceptance, it is one. I am personally tired of every documentary nominated being a stroll down misery lane. This film deserves (at least at the year's halfway point) a nomination. But...if she gets the nomination, won't that diminish the subject of the film?

Who gives a f#$*. Nominate the c&^#!
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Incredible documentary
preppy-321 June 2010
A documentary that followed Joan Rivers for an entire year when she turned 75. She talks directly to the camera and opens up about her life, her job, her family and what makes her tick. I should admit that I love Rivers! Her jokes are mean but hysterical. Seeing her here she comes across as insecure and a workaholic...but you don't pity her and she doesn't ask you too. She just wants us to see her as she really is. What was really surprising was seeing her with her daughter Melissa. Melissa comes off as cold and unfeeling--NOT the image she ever gave before. Also there is footage of Rivers on stage. Her act is incredibly profane--but hysterical! My audience would gasp and then break up at her lines. An excellent documentary of a very complex woman. A 10 all the way!
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An uneven but unblinking look at an icon - worth seeking out
eschetic-220 June 2010
Warning: Spoilers
I was sorting through some old memorabilia this weekend and stumbled across some stuff saved from a show I reviewed at the National Theatre in D.C. while I was in law school - the embarrassing and justly long forgotten FUN CITY (Alex Cohen produced it in New York for 16 previews and 9 official performances at the MUCH lamented Morosco Theatre, Jan. 2 - 8, 1972) - but it reminded me that I wanted to mention to the IMDb a funny/sad but undeniably fascinating documentary on the main co-star and co-author of the unlamented FUN CITY currently running in New York, JOAN RIVERS: A PIECE OF WORK (directed by Riki Stern and Anne Sunberg best known 'till now for their previous film festival success).

The documentary follows Rivers for a year in her recent life during which she maintained as much of a non-stop work schedule as she could (undercutting the value of her commercial endorsements by openly saying she'd shill for anything for a buck), dealt with the never explained disappearance of her long time friend and manager, and attempted a run at the Edinburgh Festival (with great success) and in London of a supposedly autobiographical play (from the clips shown, it looks like every expense was spared from the British production) that she claimed to want to bring to New York - but was terrified of repeating her still painful experience in FUN CITY. Ironically, the film makers, while emphasizing how much Rivers cares about getting the respect she deserves as an actress, never MENTION her earlier stint as a replacement in Neil Simon's Broadway BOUND (as the mother) in which the critics fell all over themselves justly praising the lady, or her more recent stint in her own SALLY MARR AND HER ESCORTS which at least received respect (and a Tony Nomination) if not commercial success. (Rivers' acting has always been strongest in other people's work, having never learned the knack of writing a sustained narrative for all her sharp caustic wit in briefer or unstructured formats.)

While uneven in its story telling (the documentary raises many issues in Rivers' life and presents contradictory responses to them, from maintaining her extravagant home to her career choices and love affair with plastic surgery - in later life her unnatural dimples start to make her resemble the model for Wayland Flowers' alter-ego, "Madame" although at the same time she's one of the few personalities big enough to carry off the QVC costume jewelery she touts and looked great in throughout the film), the documentary does not shy away from some of the massive career missteps the lady has made. The failed Fox Talk Show which mentor Johnny Carson viewed as a betrayal and got her effectively banned from NBC for years front and center among them (her odd decision to go against much advice and appear on Donald Trump's "Celebrity Apprentice" seems to have been mainly to get back on NBC). It also wisely includes a healthy sampling of her ongoing club work, reminding her fans why they were first drawn to the lady's razor sharp wit as a writer/performer. The sequence apparently intended to show Rivers' passion and pain where she deals with a heckler when delivering "edgy" material in a conservative venue goes on MUCH too long (especially since we are never allowed to hear the "joke"!) but over all we are given an 84 min. look at a comedy icon's public and private life (or as much as she's willing to share).

I suspect that outside major cities and "festivals," this will be a hard item to find even once it's released on video (in Manhattan in first release it's only in a couple places), but anyone who has heard of Joan Rivers will find it worth seeking out both for its comedy memories and its unblinking look inside a life in "the business." It's no panegyric; the film is a decidedly mixed look at this particular "Piece of Work," but it's still strongly recommended for what it is. It's nice to know the lady is still in there swinging.
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Honest, Oddly Poignant
crossbow010630 October 2010
I wouldn't call myself a fan per se, but I've always admired Joan Rivers for just saying what she feels. This documentary chronicles a year in her life, her 75th year, and is not a laugh riot by design. She goes into the relationship with her daughter Melissa, her late husband Edgar and her long time manager whom she has increasingly been unable to trust to be available for her. The poignancy is from the various parts of this film of her life as a working performer. There are times that she is not in demand and more than once states she will "take anything". Also, there is a failed play and a scene at a Wisconsin nightclub where she has a shouting match with a person who objects to one of her jokes. You don't go to a Joan Rivers show to hear sweetness, she has always been pointed and sometimes outrageous. Anyone who doesn't know her well can get some insight into her from this film, but this film is more for people who know about her and like/love her. I like her for being bold and for being a pioneer. I would recommend it to everyone who is even vaguely interested but just know it is not a full concert performance. It held my interest throughout.
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Great, don't miss it
George23 December 2010
Joan has always been my favorite female comic. I met her in the 60's,and again in the early 70's. She was performing in L.A., and my good friend, and now retired VP of Sasson, "at one time did her hair", had got us tickets at the "Little Club", where we were able to see her hone her craft. She is tired of being called a ground breaking female comic, as she mentioned, but she is that and more. I think she is more afraid of life, than death. She really shouldn't have to work as hard as she does, even though she loves it. She took a bad shot with her ex, who stepped in sxxx, when he met her. Bernie Madoff could have managed her money better. But she is a class act, a pro of the highest degree, born to do what she does. We are blessed to still have her around, and for my 2 cents, I hope she stays healthy and is around forever. She is like the Sinatra of what she does. Watch the film.
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A real look at a haunted comedian
bdgill1216 July 2011
Whatever your opinion of her may be, you cannot deny the universal fame of Joan Rivers. One of, if not the, most recognizable female comedian the world has to offer, Rivers had been thrusting herself into the spotlight for the better part of the 50 years. And whether a rabid fan, an adamant hater, or somewhere in between, everyone knows Joan. Her sharp wit and wickedly crass material have been overshadowed by her commitment to plastic surgery and unfortunate career choices but at the same time, you have to credit her for still having a career at all this far into the game. On the verge of turning 75, "Piece of Work" details the life and times of Rivers from the highs to the lows and her rise to budding superstar and fall to Indian casino bookings.

First of all it should be noted that I really wasn't interested in this movie. Obviously I love a good documentary but the thought of sitting through an hour and a half of Joan Rivers sounded only slightly less ominous than wearing Lady Gaga's famed meat suit into shark infested waters. My introduction to Joan Rivers came as a child when she appeared as an over-the-top makeup saleswoman in "The Muppets Take Manhattan," an appearance that left me shell-shocked for the last 25 years. That was enough for me. But when this doc popped up on my bi-weekly search for anything new worth watching on Netflix Instant, I figured it wouldn't hurt to add it to the queue even if I never watched it. (Note to movie studios: this is not the first time this has happened. Netflix Instant is a serious boon to your industry. Embrace it.) And then the weather and AT&T became allies and launched a dual-front attack against my house a couple of weeks ago, knocking out my cable while simultaneously making it impossible for me to leave my house. So when the Lady of the Box Office refused to be party to any of the movies I suggested (who doesn't want to have a "Star Wars" marathon on a snow day?!), we turned to "Piece of Work." Secondly, I was completely taken aback by how compelling I found this documentary to be. It provides not only a look at a comedian's creative process but also an insight into crippling insecurity. The preparation that this woman puts into her craft (comedy) and the seriousness with which she approaches it are remarkable. A wall full of card catalogues house a record of every joke Rivers has ever told and I found her editing methods to be fascinating. At the same time, the need for approval, for fame, for love (essentially) is the overwhelming message of the film. In many ways, Rivers has carved out for herself a remarkable legacy and yet all she can focus on are the rejections and the fragile state of her acting career. It's heart breaking, really, to listen to Rivers as she delves into the depths of her lack of overall confidence, something you'd never pick up for her act. "Piece of Work" also displays a strong if understated caring side to Rivers, particularly in scenes describing her kindness toward past and present employees and the continual badgering of her daughter, Melissa, concerning her smoking. Of course, being the rough-around-the-edges person that she is, her concern comes across as condescending but for me, that made these moments all the more genuine. "Piece of Work" allows the audience to view Joan Rivers as a human when most in my generation have only known her as a caricature-like presence. That humanism is where the movie makes its mark, really, and what sets it apart from other celebrity bio-docs I've seen in the past.

My site:
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This is a Fantastic Documentary
paisley quinn20 December 2010
Warning: Spoilers
I cannot believe Joan is over 75 years old and is still a relatively healthy, sharp, and current performer. I just adore her on E! Network's Fashion Police and I wanted to learn more about her, so I watched this documentary on DVD. I am impressed beyond words with her natural talent and work ethic. Although I am not a fan of the Botox and the plastic surgeries, I can see past them to view the funny but insecure genius beneath. The scene where Joan encounters the heckler was heartbreaking but she handled it correctly as a stand-up, and not as a parent. The crowd was paying for funny, not maudlin, and so Joan delivered, despite reservations afterward. I was surprised about her constant worry over money, not something I would have thought she'd be concerned about. (But, goodness, that apartment!) And the honesty over Edgar's suicide and her break with Johnny Carson made for some interesting moments as well. I highly recommend this film for anyone interested in either Joan or in the career of a stand-up comedian/actress.
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