Joan Rivers died Thursday after being on life support for several days.
Her documentary, “Joan Rivers: A Piece of Work,” has been burning a hole in my Netflix queue for months, and now was the best time to check it out.
It begins with a rarely-seen scene: Joan’s applying make-up to her bare face — a tell it’s about to get personal.
Writer/director Ricki Stern shows Joan’s newspaper headlines from the ’60s and clips of her on “The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson.” Watching her put Johnny in stitches was impressive, and I never knew how edgy she was for her time until I watched this.
Joan says Jack Lemmon walked out of the audience when she talked about how casting-couch friendly she was back in the day.
“I remember I had a joke about abortions when you weren’t supposed to even say the word on television,” she says.
Cut to the clip of her in a mini-beehive: “I have a friend who just got married, the woman is 32 years old. She had 14 appendectomies, if you know what I’m telling you.”
She says her agent told her she’s going places a woman shouldn’t go, and cue her everlasting defiance to not be silenced.
Director Stern lays this against her contemporary standup, and the only difference is she’d gotten raunchier. But that’s pretty on par with today’s comedians. And Joan’s colleagues noticed.
In this doc, Kathy Griffin oozes adoration for her.
“I wouldn’t be doing this if it wasn’t for Joan. Much in the way that she acknowledges that Phyllis Diller paved the way for her and before her was Moms Mably. There’s a handful of women in modern history that have done this.”
More than Joan’s place in history, “A Piece of Work” looks at her plastic surgery, her workaholic-ism and her parenting a child, Melissa Rivers, who’s set on stardom. It even looks at Joan’s falling out with Johnny Carson after she left “The Tonight Show” for her own primetime slot on Fox, and the suicide of her husband, Edgar Rosenberg after her show was canceled.
“He didn’t have Joan’s strength,” said her long-time agent Billy Sammeth. And her ability to persevere is the ongoing theme in this film.
At the time this was released, she was 75. The doc shows her working several shows a day across the U.S., headlining a play in Europe, running her own jewelry line, promo-ing it on QVC, and delivering Thanksgiving meals with her grandson to disabled New Yorkers.
She made 75 look good, and I doubted I could’ve kept up with her even before she died.
Some of my faves from this doc: Seeing her lavish apartment of which she says, “This is how Marie Antoinette woulda lived if she had money.” Seeing her Dewey Decimal filing system for her jokes and watching her write comedy sparknotes on poster board for a live show.
As a documentary though, this did have some weird spots.
Not really a spoiler, but, Joan alludes to and eventually fires her agent. This “plot point” unravels a bit like this was a huge reveal, when I was barely invested in him. And it would’ve been cool to have more interviews with contemporary comedians or even a sort of entertainment historian or professor for context into what Joan did for pop culture. “A Piece of Work” could’ve dug deeper into Joan’s plastic surgery and shown more or longer clips of her standup — but that may speak to I just wanted to see more of her.
The absolute pros of “A Piece of Work” are seeing the vulnerabilities of this staple in the entertainment biz. Watching brash Joan on-stage question her jokes with her close assistants off-stage gave her a poignant humanity that is rarely seen.
“All standups are innately insecure,” says Melissa Rivers.
“Growing up with comedians, they were all very damaged. They need reassurance, it’s all a cover,” she says. And “A Piece of Work” uncovers a lot of Joan.
Despite some of the weirder moments, this is so worth watching, if for anything, to see a softer side of Joan Rivers outshine her even louder stage presence.
Available: Amazon Prime, Netflix Instant
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