Anyone who expected a documentary about Joan Rivers—at least one that she had anything to do with—to be a hagiography, clearly hasn’t spoken with Rivers.
“What I didn’t want it to be was one of those ass-kissing biographies that you see on the Biography channel,” the comedienne said on the telephone the other morning as she was having her make-up applied (an hour-long process) before attending a screening of Joan Rivers: A Piece of Work at the Sundance Film Festival.
“I’m delighted they’re getting a piece of something I got! I’m thrilled with the whole thing!” Joan Rivers says of Jay Leno and Conan O’Brien. “I hope you’re really having sleepless nights. Go fuck yourselves! Maybe you would have had better ratings, like Carson, if either one of you had had me on! Too bad, boys!”
“I didn’t want this to turn into self-congratulations and everybody loves her, and oh, she’s such a good person. You watch some of those and you go, ‘Oh, come on! Mel Gibson is a Nazi! Say it!’”
Such startling candor—delivered in her signature, husky-voiced, New York patois—has always been Rivers’ schtick, from her days as a struggling, bleached-blonde stand-up in Greenwich Village, to her talk-show-host reign, to her red-carpet days, to her inevitable stints on reality TV, and it runs through A Piece of Work.
But the film, which was directed by Ricki Stern and Anne Sundberg ( The End of America) and is seeking acquisition here at Sundance, is much more than 84 minutes of Borscht Belt humor, which is what Rivers’ humor is sometimes accused of resembling. Rather, it is an unsparingly honest examination of a pioneer—besides being a foul-mouthed female, Rivers was the first comic to touch on taboo issues such as abortion—who is nonetheless mostly alone in the world, and who still feels like an unaccepted outsider. (That Rivers makes recurring jokes about Marie Antoinette does not seem coincidental.)
The filmmakers focused on a year in Rivers’ life and, as it happened, it wasn’t the best of years, a fact that Rivers never makes any attempt to hide. Now 75, we find a workaholic (her biggest fear is a blank calendar) who is fighting tooth and nail to stay alive, which, to Rivers, means not being booed off a stage now dominated by younger talent like Kathy Griffin. “I am a performer—that is my life. That is what I am,” Rivers tells the camera, her eyes tearing up in a way that is all the more powerful given that just minutes before, she was gamely pitching herself to star in a penis-enlarging commercial. “I will wear a diaper!” She jokes of the lengths she’ll go to get work. Only, it’s not a joke, and Rivers knows it.
The audience knows it, too, and therein lies the power of this incredibly poignant and surprising portrait, which happened to be one of the brightest lights at a film festival deluged with films aimed more at cineastes and hipsters than middle-aged women and gay men, Rivers’ target demo.
Which is not to say that A Piece of Work is maudlin. Please. (Or, as Rivers would say: “Don’t go there.”) This is Joan Rivers, a woman who is highly adept at making light of her, and anyone else’s, woes. When Melissa Rivers, her daughter and co-conspirator in life and onscreen, is kicked off Celebrity Apprentice before her mother, Rivers says of the show’s drama: “It’s been a bloodbath. They lie. They cheat.” Of Melissa’s nemesis, Annie Duke (whom Joan Rivers calls Annie “Douche”): “She is a snake.”
On a more serious note, the film delves into the suicide of Rivers’ husband and business partner, Edgar Rosenberg, and her acrimonious split with NBC, which she says “black-balled” her after she left her post as the “permanent” guest host of The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson, in 1986, to have her own show on Fox. The split was extremely painful for Rivers, given how close she had been with Carson after he made her career overnight by proclaiming her a star on national television when she was starting out. Carson refused to ever speak to her again, and she never again appeared on the show.
“I’m not bitter,” Rivers says over the phone, with thick sarcasm, before giving her two-cents on the current Tonight Show debacle between Jay Leno and Conan O’Brien: “I’m delighted they’re getting a piece of something I got! I’m thrilled with the whole thing!” she cries. “Go fuck yourselves! Maybe you would have had better ratings, like Carson, if either one of you had had me on! Too bad, boys!”
She chuckles to herself, the way she frequently does after spitting out a zinger; a kind of personal touché. Though self-congratulation is not in Rivers’ DNA, and in the film we see how harsh her self criticism can be (following a hosting gig at the Kennedy Center, she will only allow that she was “fine”), and how painfully she is stung by that of others. The plastic surgery jokes that are relentlessly slung at her during a Comedy Central Roast hit hard, even though she knew full well what was in store. “If I had invested wisely, I wouldn’t be doing this,” she jokes in the limo ride to the show—acknowledging, not for the first time, that something else that’s driving her ambition is money.
A Piece of Work spends more time on Rivers’ present than her past, but on the phone, she delves a little deeper, talking about how her family “disowned” her when she first broke the news that she wanted to become a professional performer, after having graduated from the best private schools, including Barnard. (Rivers’ sister was the first woman to go through Columbia Law School.)
“My parents were first-generation immigrants, very upwardly mobile,” she says. “My grandmother cleaned and washed fish to send 15 kids through college. So it was a very education-oriented, very typical, Jewish, first-generation family, and my parents came out of that.
“And so when I told my parents, I said, ‘Guess what? I want to be in show business!,’ they couldn’t deal with it… They were very unsupportive. I had to leave home, live in my car. I moved into the Y. I can’t blame them, looking back. I think if I came out of that, I would have said the same thing: Are you crazy?”
By the end of the film, things pick up for Rivers. Although she acknowledges that winning (how could she not?) Celebrity Apprentice isn’t “winning an Academy Award,” she sees it as a triumphant return to “face time” on NBC. She’s writing another book, and is working on a reality show with Melissa, Mother Knows Best. There is no need, alas, to don diapers.
Asked how her current lifestyle—which, for Rivers means work-style—compares to the good old days, Rivers is vigorously upbeat. “Of course, I would love my own late-night show. I would kill to have another one. But it’s obviously not in the cards. Life is very good. I have no complaints. It’s nice to walk down the street and have the garbage men still know who you are. ‘How ya doin’, Joanie? How do I look? What do you think about what I’m wearin’?’
To which Rivers replies: “Appropriate for the job.”
Nicole LaPorte is the senior West Coast correspondent for The Daily Beast. A former film reporter for Variety, she has also written for The New Yorker, the Los Angeles Times Magazine, The New York Times, The New York Observer, and W.