We know Joan Rivers can be tacky, abrasive, self-mocking. On her way to winning Celebrity Apprentice last year, she berated professional gambler Annie Duke, screaming “You’re a pokah playah—that’s beyond white trash!” Her scary-surgery face now looks out from Snickers ads below a line that reads, “When I’m hungry I get my face lowered.” And the second season of her TV Land series How’d You Get So Rich? in which she gushes over homes of the nouveau riche—the gaudier, the better—has just begun. But culturally significant? Turns out she’s that too.
A sleek documentary, Joan Rivers: A Piece of Work, makes a convincing case for her. Without her coarse, sexually frank stand-up, where would Sarah Silverman and Chelsea Handler be? The film’s trickier, more revealing theme appears between the lines. The cameras followed Rivers for a year, beginning in mid-2008 when she turned 75, capturing moments of raw honesty often in the same scenes that display huge blind spots. In a limo on the way to a Comedy Central roast, Rivers whines to her assistant, “I am so depressed,” because she’s anticipating the predictable jokes about surgery and aging. So why does she do it? For the money—not exactly a depressing motive. (After all, she has a staff and a gilded, faux-Versailles apartment to maintain.) What emerges is a remarkable portrait of the vanity, vulnerability, and personal cost of being an ambitious old lady in celebrity culture.
A Piece of Work is also pretty funny. Clips from Rivers’s decades-old routines show why her humor was so startling: in a time before legal abortion she jokes about a girlfriend who kept shuttling back and forth to Puerto Rico, where she’d had “14 appendectomies.” Rivers still doesn’t play it safe. The film follows her to contemporary club dates, and one of the biggest laughs comes when she demonstrates the sort of sex she likes, a kind that lets her lie on her stomach and multitask, reading e-mails on her BlackBerry. Being the shocking granny has become part of her shtik. You can think of her compulsive whirl of energy as an exemplary way to stay young, but there’s no way to be generous about her cosmetic surgeries. They suggest an almost pathological resistance to aging, beyond anything Hollywood requires. Truly, only her eyelids and plumped-up lips seem to move in her granite-hard face, which looks even more alarming on a big screen than on television.
But don’t expect a full-frontal view beneath that mask. In the opening credits we watch her putting on makeup in extreme close-up: there’s a blotchy eyelid here, a chin with visible pores there, but we never see her full naked face. That’s a perfect metaphor for the film, which never quite comes clean. Rivers seems to be blunt in describing her marriage to Edgar Rosenberg, a producer she married four days after they met. “Was I madly in love with him? No. Was it a good marriage? Yes,” she says, which doesn’t ex-plain much. If she wasn’t crazy in love, why marry so fast?
Rosenberg committed suicide in 1987, after the Fox network asked Rivers to fire him as producer of her late-night talk show, and then fired her when she refused. That show was cursed in many ways. She abandoned her role as permanent guest host of The Tonight Show for it, a breakthrough for women in late night, and with still-vehement rancor insists that Johnny Carson never spoke to her again. Her lingering sense of being an outsider borders on paranoia. Driving to the Kennedy Center to appear in a tribute to George Carlin, she complains that she’s usually left out of these things. She also shrewdly observes that the event goes against Carlin’s antiauthoritarian comedy. But she’s deaf to the echoes in her own career: having shattered polite rules of behavior all her life, she longs to be taken seriously.
A Piece of Work seems like Rivers’s calculated bid for high-brow acceptance. The filmmakers, Ricki Stern and Annie Sundberg, are known for tough-minded documentaries about Darfur and an unfairly convicted murderer, but they approached Rivers because she and Stern’s mother are friends. Win-win for Rivers. In a question-and-answer session at the Tribeca Film Festival, Rivers said the directors made just one change at her request, cutting a scene in which she walked by a photo of Rosenberg and cursed him. “You never get over the anger at a suicide,” she said, but that honest-to-the-bone moment upset their daughter, Melissa. We’re left wondering how many more tough revelations were scrapped from kindness or self-censorship, even if Rivers didn’t ask outright.
Beyond that cozy relationship, Rivers chose her biographers with a sure sense of the cultural wave. In the age of reality television, filmmakers are the new Boswells, trailing their subjects, offering intimate views of their lives, handling them gently, and letting us draw our own conclusions. James Toback let Mike Tyson off easy in 2008’s Tyson; Tamra Davis creates a dazzling sense of the ’80s New York art scene in the forthcoming Jean-Michel Basquiat: The Radiant Child. Both centered around friendly interviews. Coming up is Alex Gibney’s film about Eliot Spitzer, made with the cooperation of the scrambling-to-come-back former governor, as well as biodocs about Vidal Sassoon, Hugh Hefner—almost anyone who has had an impact. The immediacy can be stunning, but it’s a delicate dance: every biographical filmmaker knows that tough questions may cost them access. Joining her own kindly filmographers at the Sundance Film Festival as well as Tribeca—far more prestigious appearances than her usual gigs—is Rivers’s way of proving she belongs in such arty, influential company. But she’s still pitching herself as if she were a brooch in her QVC jewelry line. And just the way a home-shopping host can sell you a bauble that never had your name on it, with persistence and selective candor Rivers wins you over.