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'Joan Rivers: A Piece of Work': Film shows her fears, ambition

Joan Rivers, still working in her mid-70s, is driven by ambition and fear, as revealed in the documentary Joan Rivers: A Piece of Work.
Joan Rivers, still working in her mid-70s, is driven by ambition and fear, as revealed in the documentary Joan Rivers: A Piece of Work.

Fear, defined in the bawdy and surprisingly trenchant new documentary Joan Rivers: A Piece of Work, is a blank calendar. She riffs on the terror in those little empty squares. By then, you know it's no laughing matter. Work is life; not working might as well be death.

With a mix of such moments — as poignantly revealing as they are entertaining — along with TV clips, many of them classics, and months spent following the comic through the long days and nights of her 75th year, filmmakers Ricki Stern and Annie Sundberg capture the "Can we talk?" comic in all her funny fury.

She is, to put it mildly, still brazen after all these years. When talking of being a sort of birth mother for the current caustic strain of female stand-ups, including Kathy Griffin and Sarah Silverman, she explodes, "F--- them." Classic Rivers: half joke, half line in the sand, all R-rated.

She has crossed lines of decorum from the beginning, as the film deftly reminds. After all the dreary red-carpet duty of recent years with daughter Melissa, it's easy to forget that Rivers was a groundbreaker. Using clips and conversations, the filmmakers go back through the pre-Roe vs. Wade years, when she made abortion a bit in her act — euphemistically when she was ripping through the TV talk-show circuit, unabashedly when she was on stage — despite being told it was career suicide. Nothing is off limits if it gets a laugh, and that's a lot: A wall in her apartment is lined floor to ceiling with carefully organized files of all the jokes she has ever written.

The story, though, begins with Rivers. The woman who has long been a plastic surgery punch line is, for all practical purposes, naked, the camera zooming in on a makeup artist's careful ministrations — broken veins covered, eyebrows penciled in, lipstick put on a mouth cut tight by scalpels. In these scenes, the filmmakers expose her reality — harsh under bright lights — whether Rivers chooses to talk about it.

Her unrelenting ambition and its often-heavy costs becomes the documentary's central theme. In one particularly telling moment, daughter Melissa, who with her mother was cast on Celebrity Apprentice in 2009 while the documentary was shooting, explains that Rivers might think she wants Melissa to win, but it's just not in her genes to hold back. That's exactly how it plays out: with Melissa booted and Rivers going on to claim the title.

The high price is the subtext as Rivers remembers Johnny Carson. He gave Rivers her big break in 1968, and she became his permanent guest host. But he cut her off when she launched a late-night talk show on Fox in 1986, and it still brings her to tears that he never spoke to her again.

On the surface, Rivers seems an unlikely choice for frequent collaborators Stern and Sundberg, whose previous work includes genocide in Darfur and a North Carolina man wrongly convicted of a rape-murder that cost him 20 years in prison. What does echo such efforts is the presence of a strong central character and the film's quiet statements about the relative value of a life in a celebrity-obsessed society where even 15 minutes of fame is avidly sought.

The film's weakness is the perspective on Rivers. There are no detractors among the many interviewed, although with more than 40 years in the entertainment business, there must be a few people besides Carson whom she rubbed the wrong way.

That focus also is a strength, with her candor as untempered as her ambition. She shows up for rehearsal for her one-woman play one day, after a cosmetic drive-by that has made her face a puffy pincushion, newly pumped with fillers and smoothers. Not a pretty sight. But the scene is not so much about the play as the fears that fuel her 18-hour days: that she won't look good for the show, and that some day, there won't be a show.

Among the few personal notes in the film is her annual Thanksgiving dinner for family and friends in her New York apartment, a luxe rococo-Victorian mash-up of silks and brocades. But the holiday, like any personal life in the traditional sense, seems little more than a brief interlude from the thing she really craves.

The best part of the film is watching her work the dive clubs. In one, a bar stool on the stage is coming apart, and it soon becomes a prop for her jokes; in another, there's a heckler she takes apart — an even better prop. She is by turns blue, bitter, hilarious, unbroken; a Hollywood-style portrait in infinite ambition. In that role, Rivers is unforgettable.