The documentary Joan Rivers: A Piece of Work opens with a lingering full-screen closeup of the right half of the comedian's 77-year-old face. Without makeup. Post all those surgeries and injections. Her veins are spidery, skin blotchy and pale, locks damp and plastered against her skull, upper lip seemingly immobile, eyebrow so thin you can count every hair. It's arresting -- a statement of intent on the part of filmmakers Ricki Stern and Annie Sundberg that their picture will not just be about surfaces.
Then, as Rivers begins slathering on lipstick, mascara, powder, foundation thick as paste, images of her younger self start appearing as shadows, along with voices from her past: Johnny Carson saying she's going to be "a big star," Ed Sullivan describing her as his "daffy little friend," an introduction calling her "the groundbreaking female comedian."
By the end of the accolades, she's fully made up -- the Joan Rivers we know -- ready to talk trash, but first she has to wade through trash, down stairwells piled high with junk, through backstage hallways with peeling paint, onto a tiny dilapidated stage in Queens.
"This is my career," she moans in that familiar rasp. "How depressing is this? Forty years in the f___ing business, and this is where you end up."
Rivers no longer plays Vegas as often as she once did. Those dates are now taken by Kathy Griffin, one of a whole generation of female comedians who looked to her for inspiration. But there's still a Joan Rivers industry headquartered in her wildly baroque Manhattan apartment. Gold, white, pink -- "this," she says, "is how Marie Antoinette would've lived if she'd had money."
In her office, the filmmakers find a sort of joke museum, a wall of alphabetized card-catalog drawers stuffed with 3-by-5 cards, each typed neatly with a gag she's delivered, often to outrage from the public, especially back in the days when female comics were expected to be demure.
"When I started comedy, I was wild for the time, but -- " she shrugs, "different time."
The last line of her original act was: "This business is all about casting couches, so I just want you to know, my name is Joan Rivers, and I put out."
"The audience, half of them laughed," she remembers. "Jack Lemmon saw me and walked out. Said that's disgusting. So for my time I was very shocking."
Shocking played well as late-night fare, of course, and for a time, Joan was the late-night queen, anointed by the king himself, Johnny Carson. She appeared so often, he made her his designated replacement host. But when she took a late-night gig on a rival network, Carson never spoke to her again. Her own show was a flop. Her husband felt responsible and committed suicide. And her struggle to rebuild her career took decades.
As the film repeatedly makes clear, comedy is a high-wire act where you're forever in danger of crashing. Rivers' crashes have been spectacular, but then, so have her recoveries. The lady's relentless, but she's a survivor, ever abrasive, ever self-absorbed.
But as the film demonstrates over the course of a full year with her, and not a great year by any stretch -- filled with failures (a play that flops in London), sadness (a manager who goes AWOL) and humiliation (a roast where the jokes are brutal and take their toll) -- there is more to this particular hard-charging, egomaniacal, joke machine than gets revealed onstage.
Plastic surgery, vulgarity, red carpet chats -- all just small pieces of Joan Rivers: A Piece of Work. (Recommended)