“Genius.” “Brilliant.”

Joan Rivers: A Piece of Work

Those were words used to describe Joan Rivers Monday night at the Tribeca Film Festival premiere of Joan Rivers: A Piece of Work, the story of the comedienne-entertainer. I was interested in seeing the film largely because I was curious about how two serious doc directors I respect, Ricki Stern and Annie Sundberg (The Trials of Darryl Hunt, The Devil Came on Horseback), would treat a frivolous subject I couldn’t care less about.

Things didn’t start out well. I was sitting right in front of Rivers before the lights were dimmed, and I was weirded out by her ghoulish plastic-surgery facemask. She looked like the kind of rich lady I might see on the Upper East Side and judge mercilessly. All I really knew of Rivers was her shrill persona, and her lame red carpet chatter during the Oscars. And then to hear her being called a “genius;” I was getting pretty cynical about how non-fiction filmmaking has been shanghaied to bring 3rd, 4th, 5th acts to “stars” whom we had blissfully forgotten about (Mike Tyson, Robert Evans, etc.). Not that those films are all bad, I just wasn’t liking where the evening was heading.

And then the movie started. I thought that I’d have difficulty empathizing with a person whose face can’t move, but, well, I began to change my mind as I watched the film. The film builds, showing Rivers at a crossroads in her career, which is “in the toilet.” Details begin to emerge — the suicide of her husband, the way she keeps all of her jokes in a catalog drawer — that peel away the artifice of her face. I’m talking metaphorically here, of course, but I started to open up to the film, and to Rivers.

Near the end of the film, she does a stand-up act at a resort in Wisconsin where a guy heckles her for her insensitivity. She takes the guy on in a way that made me change my mind about Joan Rivers. I began to respect her.

When a film can change my attitude about something — even about a has-been narcissist looking for more attention — I’ve got to give it credit. I had spoken with Stern about the film earlier, and she explained that her mother is a friend of Rivers, and that’s how she got the idea to do the film. Stern characterized her interest as an extension of her past, particularly her background in the theater.

“For me it’s an extension of my personality,” she said. “We have a social and intellectual side, where we hope to make a political impact. But we also make movies because we want a good story to be told.”

I get it. And despite the fawning Q & A panel after the screening, in which film critic-hack Rex Reed spoke with Rivers (and largely ignored the directors), I found myself admiring Rivers’ indefatigable spirit. And, more than that, she was just funny, telling cracks that linked the name Demi (Moore) with the c-word, and responding to Reed’s pandering query about what Broadway role she would be good for with the quip, “I would have been a great Phantom.”

“Genius,” may be an overstatement. But funny, and worth spending an evening with? Definitely.

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Tom Roston
Tom Roston is a guest columnist for POV's documentary blog. He is a former Premiere magazine senior editor, who graduated from Brown University and started his career in journalism at The Nation and then Vanity Fair. Tom's freelance work has appeared in The New York Times, The Guardian, The Los Angeles Times, The Hollywood Reporter and other publications. He has written several Kindle Singles, including the bestselling Kindle Singles Interview: Ken Burns. Tom's current list of favorite documentaries are: 1. Koyanisqaatsi by Godfrey Reggio; 2. Hoop Dreams by Steve James; 3.Stories We Tell by Sarah Polley; 4.Crumb by Terry Zwigoff; 5. Montage of Heck by Brett Morgen