The Brutality of a Performer's Life: 'Joan Rivers--A Piece Of Work'
By Pamela Cohn
Filmmaking team Ricki Stern and Annie Sundberg are not known for shying away from difficult subject matter. Through their company, Break Thru Films, they have created powerful, character-driven documentaries for years: The Trials of Darryl Hunt (2006), The Devil Came on Horseback (2007), The End of America (2008). Their most recent effort, Joan Rivers--A Piece of Work, produced, directed and written by Stern, and produced and directed by Sundberg, is just as hard-hitting and just as intense as their other films. Don't let the comedic material fool you; this film is far from a celebrity puff piece. The humiliation of their subject is real, the self-denigration is real and the angst is real--as is the pain and fear of being an aging has-been in a world obsessed with youth and beauty.
For those of us who grew up watching Joan Rivers on TV and have been lifelong fans, her perseverance, strength, groundbreaking work and decades-long career in the most unforgiving business in the world is not a revelation. But for those who only know her as a plastic-surgery freak, QVC jewelry maven or red-carpet hostess, this film shows, to wonderful effect, the unbreakable spirit of an aging woman still working her ass off, and making every moment of her life matter. We journey with Rivers for a little over a year as Stern and Sundberg capture the full scope of her life in quite poignant and moving ways.
Rivers is a close friend of Stern's mother, so the director has known her for years, and because Stern grew up in the business, she's no stranger to the types of personalities that are drawn to performing as a lifelong obsession. In making the film, Stern says that she was equally obsessed with her subject. "There was an instant rapport; we immediately trusted one another. She gave us access when others around her, trying to protect her, were shutting us out." To enhance that intimacy, the production team always stayed small. Oftentimes, it was just Stern and DP Charles Miller, hopping on the subway to Rivers' palatial Manhattan penthouse, cameras in tow, shooting in whatever light was available. Stern captured as much as she could and spent as much time with Rivers as possible throughout the year. It wasn't so much the concrete or material aspects of Rivers' life that the filmmaker wanted to capture, but the drive, needs, fears and passions of this force-of-nature septuagenarian. The archival interludes throughout--stills, television and film excerpts, family home movies and other materials--remind us that, no matter what we might think of Rivers (and she garners plenty of negative criticism), no one can discount her legacy. As well, no one can disregard the utter brutality of a comedic performer's life, and how much, especially as a female, she's had to fight and sacrifice over the decades.
Rivers has never been a shrinking violet. The raw and visceral nature of what she allows the camera to capture only enhances our empathy. However, lest this be mistaken for some kind of "cotton candy treat of a tribute," as Stern describes what she distinctly did not want to make, in true Rivers fashion, the comedienne tells the story of a young woman who said to her, "You opened the doors for me." (Note the past tense.) Rivers says she wanted to say to her, "Fuck you. I'm still opening the doors." And she is.
The film contains many painful moments, ones in which a viewer might want to turn away. Yet Rivers is the one who always keeps it real, fresh, compelling us to never give short shrift to what it takes for her to keep going. This is a woman who was born and raised in the tony bedroom community of Larchmont, New York, daughter of a doctor and a housewife, schooled at Barnard and expected to marry a nice Jewish man and have babies. But from a very early age, Rivers explains that the theater was the only place in which she was ever interested: "The only time I'm truly happy is when I'm on the stage. I am a performer. That is my life. That is what I am. That's it."
Joan Rivers--A Piece of Work shows us this workhorse in action--day in, day out, collaborating and brainstorming with her assistants, her agent, her manager and others, on how to keep doing what she's been put on the earth to do. But the imperative to never stop is not for her alone, at this point. Rivers is the sole supporter of the many people (and their families) in her employ. "I'm a small industry," she informs us. "I send my employees' kids to private school. I support many members of my own family." She equates "fear" with an empty calendar, the days and months stretching out on a blinding white canvas with nothing to fill them--no jobs, no gigs, no prospects. This is a woman, mind you, who is an entertainment legend and an internationally renowned comedienne, Tony-nominated actress, best-selling author, Emmy Award-winning television host, film director (1978's hilarious Rabbit Test, a comedy about the world's first pregnant man, starring Billy Crystal in his first major movie role), playwright, screenwriter, jewelry designer, businesswoman, mother, grandmother and on and on and on. And the last thing we will ever see her doing is chilling on one of her silk sofas, popping bon-bons, perusing the fashion mags and filing her perfect nails. Her schedule would undo your average ambitious and energetic 25-year-old starlet on the rise. This is also a woman who still titters at her own fart jokes like a 12-year-old boy. She is, indeed, ageless and timeless.
Throughout the year Stern and Sundberg shot, we traverse the different aspects of Rivers' life: at home with her staff; her complex relationship with long-time manager, Billy Sammeth, who's been with her for 35 years and who disappears on her regularly; Jocelyn Pickett, her personal assistant for the last 15 years, who came to work for the performer at a particularly low period in Rivers' career; with her family, most notably, her daughter, Melissa, who is just as candid and forthright as her mother as they both try to parse a deeply loving, but incredibly complicated, relationship; and, her painful memories of husband, Edgar Rosenberg, who helped manage her career, and committed suicide in 1987.
The moment that saddened me the most, however, and gave real insight into the damaged psyche of a "star," was a short exchange that most might regard as a throw-away scene: After a triumphant performance at London's Leicester Square Theatre of her autobiographical play, Joan Rivers: A Work in Progress by a Life in Progress, she greets an adoring crowd, signing autographs and receiving compliments about how funny and brilliant she is. One man says to her, "Do you feel the love we have for you?" And she looks directly at him and says, "No. I'll feel it when I read the reviews." It turns out the reviews are pretty horrible and cruel. As Jocelyn reads one insulting review after another to Rivers as they ride in the back of her limo, we see that she is utterly destroyed, as if the accolades of the adoring crowd the night before never happened.
But then she is back in the saddle, unstoppable, hopping planes, zigzagging across the country to do live performances, special appearances, lectures, book signings, etc., etc., etc. The film does end on a high note, although Stern admits that that wasn't really important to the narrative arc of the film. But Rivers has won Season Two of Donald Trump's The Celebrity Apprentice, and is, once again, the "golden girl," in high demand, her calendar filled to capacity. The unrelenting taskmaster of fame has smiled down upon her once again. The entire piece makes for one of the most satisfying profiles of a major celebrity that I've seen.
After winning the US Documentary Editing Award at Sundance this year, and playing a number of high-profile festivals, including the Tribeca Film Festival, San Francisco International Film Festival and Hot Docs, Joan Rivers--A Piece of Work will be the Centerpiece screening at New Fest, the New York LGBT Film Festival, on Wednesday, June 9, where Rivers will be making a special appearance in a post-screening conversation with Village Voice columnist Michael Musto. The film opens Friday June 11, in theaters in New York, Los Angeles and San Francisco, through IFC Films.
Pamela Cohn is a New York-based independent media producer, theatrical outreach and social engagement producer, film programmer, and freelance arts journalist writing for many publications and sites including Hammer to Nail, Filmmaker Magazine and DOX Magazine. She writes a well-regarded blog on nonfiction filmmaking called Still in Motion.