Joan Rivers: A Piece Of Work

Joan Rivers: A Piece Of Work

Joan Rivers: A Piece Of Work (2010). Directed by Ricki Stern and Anne Sundberg.

Joan Rivers is the type of subject you’d expect Nick Broomfield (Biggie and Tupac, Heidi Fleiss: Hollywood Madam) to take on instead of Ricki Stern and Anne Sundberg (The Devil Came on Horseback, The Trials of Darryl Hunt). How do you go from making films about genocide and death row to the queen of comedy?

Stern first met Rivers through her family. After spending some time with the Rivers and getting to know her better, Stern and Sundberg decided that Joan Rivers would be their next project. The idea of doing a film about a comedian appealed to them and would be a nice change from their previous work.

Try to Google “joan rivers” and Google will suggest “joan rivers plastic surgery”. Joan’s face is a piece of work, a lot of work. The film opens with several close up shots of her face without any makeup and it isn’t pretty. It sets the tone for the film which gives us a raw, honest look at an aging performer.

Rivers claims that the first thing she does in the morning is her makeup and jokes that even she can’t bear to look at herself until she is made up. At one point in the film she arrives at a meeting with her face swollen after receiving collagen injections. Rivers is consumed with her image and hates the thought of growing old and fading into obscurity.

I was struck by how much energy this 76-year-old comedian has. She keeps an incredibly busy schedule and worries constantly about her bookings and appointments. She jokes with her personal assistant about whether she should put some sunglasses on before she looks at her day timer, worried that pages will be blindingly white, blank. Rivers will do commercials, book signings, stand up comedy and promote just about anything so long as it pays and keeps her in the spotlight. She’s a self-confessed workaholic and the last thing she wants to do is sit by the pool and relax.

Stern and Sundberg spent 14 months with Joan Rivers, plenty of time to get to know the real Joan which I think comes across in the film. If you’re unfamiliar with her stand up comedy you might be surprised by some of the expletives coming out of her mouth. She is incredibly funny, quick and witty when it comes to her audiences. I was impressed with how she handled a heckler at a show in Wisconsin.

At the same time she comes across as a very caring and fair person. She delivers turkeys to families on Thanksgiving, supports many family and friends financially, and always makes time for her adoring fans. It’s easy to look at Joan Rivers as a freak but this film takes us behind the mask and provides us with a unique look at her human side.


Films are rated from 1 to 4 stars.

Posted in Hot Docs at 4:00 PM