I have probably mentioned it before, but I have an almost compulsive desire to watch film and television awards shows. I download ballots, make my predictions, and prepare some tasty tidbits to snack on while I sit through the 14-hour Oscars (or whatever show happens to be on at the time). Usually, at about hour 5, I get bored. The speeches sound the same, the wrong people tend to win, and the commercial breaks are of epic proportions. Funny enough, I blame Joan Rivers for this unhealthy fascination. E! Entertainment Television used to broadcast her “best and worst dressed” Oscar shows throughout the entire day of the Academy Awards. After we brushed up on our fashion “do’s” and “don’ts” my siblings and I settled in for the pre-show where Joan would talk to various celebrities on the red carpet. Ultimately, after several years, E! (don’t forget the exclamation point—everything is better with an exclamation point!!) axed the show and replaced it with something far less interesting.
It’s weird that my first impression of this comedy legend was through these fashion shows. I was unaware of her history—that Rivers was a stand-up comedian and talk show host before her stint on E! I would like to say it was because I was young and ignorant, but most likely it was because the internet was far less prolific at the time (did I just date myself?). The sad irony is that the Oscars—an institution I had always somehow personally associated with Rivers—did not list the documentary Joan Rivers: A Piece of Work on the documentary shortlist (basically the list of films eligible to be nominated for an Oscar). Now, I have yet to see many of the shortlist documentaries (or a lot of the documentaries from this year, period), but this seemed rather shocking to me. Of course, I will be adding the 15 films from the shortlist to my queue. Sigh. Some people never learn.
Joan Rivers: A Piece of Work is a biographic documentary focusing on both the private and public lives of Rivers. It highlights her struggle to remain “in demand” and desire to keep busy with showbiz. Although A Piece of Work provides glimpses of Rivers’ past and her path to success, it focuses on her more recent career choices (writing/starring in a play based on her life and her decision to participate in Celebrity Apprentice).
I found this film to be a lot of things: heartbreaking, inspiring, frustrating, funny, and sad. It is the combination of all these emotions that really gave the film depth and made it powerful. Rivers could be viewed as a tragic character if one only looked at the events in her life (being shunned from a certain television network, her talk show getting the ax after a short run, and the suicide of her husband). However, when watching the film, I don’t get the impression that she feels sorry for herself. Instead, she shows a strong resolve to continue entertaining. Rivers states early on that she likes to live well—and has a very high standard of living—and needs to work to support that.
There is a scene in the film where Rivers agrees to be roasted by Comedy Central because it pays well. Before the roasting by other comedians, she predicts (although she had a long career in comedy) that all of the jokes would revolve around her plastic surgery. Sadly, it seemed to come true. Yes, I know they only showed a few clips from the roast; but in general, this seems to be what people talk about when discussing her (just like when talking about me, people can’t resist gabbing about my mad square dancing skills or my impressive ability to tell when the cookies are done baking even before the timer goes off). To me, this seems to be more of a reflection of the entertainment industry than it is on Rivers. She is a woman who wants to work (albeit, she may be addicted to working and/or fame), but this is an industry based on image. Beauty is valued. Youth is priceless. I see Rivers’ plastic surgery as an attempt to obtain both—and therefore a job. It seems as though she has a lot against her: as a 75 year old (at the time) woman who had to push her way through a male-dominated profession and attempt to stay fresh in a field where everything must be new and edgy.
Rivers is open about her life—and tells the audience that she will take any job that pays. The crew follows her to remote locations for small shows. Although I feel bad saying this because I realize she was very ground-breaking, some of her stand-up routine does seem a bit dated. However, I find her most funny when she isn’t “on.” She is quite witty when she is talking with the film crew and making random observations.
I quite liked this film. I found it to be an interesting slice of not only Rivers’ life, but the the concept of celebrity as a whole. There are tender moments in the film—for example where she holds her grandson’s hand in the car is an genuine, unspoken sign of love. These glimpses seem like a stark contrast to her hard, stand-up persona. A Piece of Work is essentially a character study of one of the most recognizable figures in comedy (aside from Dane Cook and Carrot Top, of course). It’s one of the better biographic documentaries I have seen in a while and is able to straddle the fine line between “reality” and “entertainment.”
Have a wonderful day!
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