Joan Rivers: A Piece of Work

October 5, 2010

It would seem as though the so-called Queen of Comedy was right on the money with her declaration: “I’m back, you bastards.” After doing the rounds at Sundance (where it won an award for Documentary Film Editing) and Tribeca as well as being part of the official selection at both the Sydney Film Festival and the New Zealand International Film Festival, Joan Rivers: A Piece of Work (2010) made its way to ACMI where it enjoyed a sell-out season, and now, thanks to the good people at Madman Entertainment, the film enjoys a new lease of life screening in; Melbourne (exclusively at Cinema Nova from September 30th), and Sydney, Perth and Hobart (from October 7th).

Rivers is only careful when it comes to cataloguing. her jokes.

For a woman who has been acting and doing stand-up since 1966, Joan Rivers already has more than enough to show for a life in show biz. But it’s just not enough.Still as hungry for it at 75 as she was 44 years ago when she started out, Rivers is dissatisfied with the thanks she receives for opening the proverbial door to women comediennes, barking back with “Fuck you, I’m still opening doors!” Refusing to fade into the distance and with about as much determination as she’s had plastic surgery, Rivers takes no prisoners.With absolutely no intention of going anywhere even slightly left or right of the limelight Rivers isn’t interested in retiring into an ordinary existence, “I could stop and live carefully but that’s ridiculous. I don’t want to live carefully.”

Considering herself “a small industry” with a staff that supports her claim, Rivers categorises and catalogues her jokes – all of them, on speech cards. Proud of her body of work and the performances that were so shocking for their time that Jack Lemmon famously walked out on one, Rivers makes no apologies and no concessions for the affect her biting satire is responsible for; her only weakness being her need to be loved and her genuine disappointment that “No one will ever take me seriously as an actor.”

While it’s difficult to believe that someone so brazen as Rivers could be disappointed not to be taken seriously, the documentary works hard to show her softer side (or at least it explores the idea that she might have one.) Filming and focusing on the present, Joan Rivers: A Piece of Work includes just mere glimpses of a coloured past, hoping to build up the story of Joan now: on the rise to become a *star*. Again. From a blank calendar to a fully booked diary the film builds its tension along with the trajectory of Joan’s (re)career. Re-building block by block, day by day, until the grid is full, Rivers clearly won’t rest even when she is back on top; self-achievement too important; “in spite of being a woman, in spite of being 75 and in spite of being black-balled by NBC.”

Does Rivers have a softer side?

With comedy so clearly fuelled by anger and defiance, Joan Rivers: A Piece of Work is the first installment of a come-back PR propaganda campaign. Pushing her clout in equal proportion to her humility (if, as the film would have us believe, she actually has any), it hopes to gain her the respect and empathy of an entirely new audience whilst simultaneously re-kindling a lost love affair with the old. There are moments in the film where Rivers even makes attempts to tear-up, but her face just won’t allow it, oftentimes making it difficult to determine just how sincere she really is being. But, she is a funny woman, and even if her face won’t crack up, no doubt you will.

Written by Tara Judah for Liminal Vision.

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