Joan Rivers in Joan Rivers - A Piece of Work
(© Charles Miller/IFC Films)
Joan Rivers in Joan Rivers - A Piece of Work
(© Charles Miller/IFC Films)
Filmmakers Annie Sundberg and Ricki Stern have covered everything from genocide in Darfur to a case involving rape and murder, but for their latest and highly informative documentary, Joan Rivers: A Piece of Work, the two women spent nearly a year and a half with the still sharp-witted/tongued septuagenarian, to find out what drives well-to-do grandmother to stay onstage and in the public eye. Rivers, not surprisingly, has the answer. "I am a performer. When I am on stage, it is the only time I am truly happy," she says.

From the opening moments of Rivers -- in a tight, absolutely frightening close-up of her bare naked, early morning face -- it's clear that Sundberg and Stern seem to have been given total access to both the star and her friends and family. Rivers, who comments on herself and her life all through the film, is the talkiest talking head in a series that includes her heiress apparent, Kathy Griffin, and other comic icons like Lily Tomlin and Don Rickles, who is even older than Joan and twice as insulting. But Joan can handle hecklers as well as Rickles any day. When a patron takes issue with her Helen Keller riff ("She was a quiet child") Joan quickly wins back her Wisconsin audience.

On the more personal side, there are scenes of Rivers not connecting very well with her daughter Melissa, while also showing great affection for her grandson Edgar (called Cooper) -- who was named for Joan's husband, Edgar Rosenberg, who committed suicide. In fact, Rivers' story contains just about every Lifetime Channel woman's movie trope about re-inventing one's life. The only difference is she makes jokes about it all in front of any size audience that will hire her.

The brainy daughter of middle-class Russian immigrants, Rivers graduated from Barnard College but chose the almost impossible-for-a-female-in-those-days world of comedy. Rivers' original irreverent style showed only hints of the potty-mouthed, botox-browed granny she would become, but it gained her incredible popularity as she went from guest starring on the Ed Sullivan show (while still wearing her original sort-of-cute face), to guest hosting The Tonight Show in Johnny Carson's absence. She even got her own gig as the only nighttime female talk show host -- but at the cost of Carson's friendship.

Further along the way she garnered a Tony Award nomination for the Broadway show, Sally Marr and her Escorts; lost all her money to crooked business partners; has hawked jewelry and makeup on QVC; written several very funny, self-help books; and even won NBC's The Celebrity Apprentice. She's also written and starred in a one woman show called Joan Rivers: A Work in Progress by a Life in Progress in L.A. and Edinburg that she hoped to bring to Broadway, but the film shows her reading some bad reviews and deciding to fold that tent.

No matter what happens to her, however, not only will Rivers likely talk about it or write about it, but her particular brand of humor remains intact. On her return to her Park Avenue mini-Versailles, gilt encrusted apartment, Rivers cracks, "This is where Marie Antoinette would live if she had money."

Depending on your own point of view of Rivers, the film is either a celebration of her longevity or a cautionary tale to younger performers starting out -- or perhaps something in the middle. On the Comedy Central Joan Rivers Roast, even as the younger women comics savaged her, they each praised her ground-breaking career and her take-no-prisoners attitude.