About three-quarters through the Joan Rivers-authorized documentary, Joan Rivers: A Piece of Work, Joan Rivers sits in the back of a limousine as her assistant reads aloud the first reviews of Joan Rivers: A Work in Progress by a Life in Progress, the autobiographical play written by and starring Joan Rivers, which debuted the night before in a British theater. The reviews are good but not great. Rivers sighs, rolls her eyes as only a 75-year-old diva could, wonders aloud whether the play will ever make it to New York, and laments, "No one will ever take me seriously as an actress."
Rivers may be right about the acting (two years later, there's still no play in her hometown), but it would be hard to argue that the aging comedienne doesn't make a fascinating documentary subject. And while it's one thing to be a good subject, it's another all together to craft an engaging narrative when that subject is already an overexposed celebrity. To that end, the filmmakers here have reinvented the celebrity documentary much the way Rivers attempts to reinvent herself whenever necessary in order to stay relevant.
Whether Rivers succeeds in her reinventions is—like her acting—debatable. But by capturing those moments of reinvention with an honest eye and avoiding the traps that could easily have turned this into a sycophantic puff piece, directors Ricki Stern and Anne Sunberg have done something remarkable: They've managed to turn a caricature back into a person.
Throughout all 90 minutes of A Piece of Work, we're never quite sure whether we are A) bearing witness to the tail end of a 50-year show business career as the grand dame of celebrity culture hurdles toward an ugly and destructive train wreck or B) eavesdropping in on a one-year window in the life of an icon who understands the joke is now on her but will, nonetheless, take every stand-up job she can until the day death finally puts a damper on her gig.
There are strong elements of sadness in both of those storylines. Integrating footage from her early career as a groundbreaking comedienne and then later as permanent guest host of "The Tonight Show," the filmmakers do not try to camouflage the fact that Rivers has reached the point midway through her eighth decade where she is famous for being famous. Interviews with friends and business associates pinpoint the beginning of her decline to 1986, when she abruptly left "The Tonight Show" gig after the fledgling Fox network offered her a late night show of her own. That show quickly failed, Johnny Carson never spoke to her again and her husband committed suicide in 1987.
The Joan Rivers of today is admittedly obsessed with staying relevant, which results in several uncomfortable moments throughout the film. There are the empty schedule books and the phone calls with agents and managers who have nothing to offer. When offers do come, Rivers finds herself headlining a mid-winter stand-up show at a Wisconsin casino and, later, opening for Don Rickles. Yes, I too was surprised to learn Don Rickles is still alive and performing.
Rivers jokes about these gigs, but since comics are by nature self-deprecating, we're never quite sure whether she really wants our sympathy or not. Whenever we feel hints of that emotion, Rivers is quickly back on camera to brag about her life of luxury, including the now infamous plastic surgeries and her New York City penthouse, saying, "This is how Marie Antoinette would have lived if she had money."
Eventually, the confluence of fleeting fame and desperation come to a head as the filmmakers follow Rivers as she begins filming "Celebrity Apprentice." Only in this documentary could a Donald Trump reality show serve as an emotional centerpiece. It's quite apt, really. It takes a healthy dose of ego, confidence, naiveté and bombast to declare, as Rivers does, that, "If I win 'Celebrity Apprentice,' I'm back."
The sentence hangs there for a second or two, left dangling for us to consider whether this is a serious statement, or whether Rivers is, again, just trying to show us that she fully understands the irony of her situation. That we never know for sure is the beauty of this documentary. It is heartbreakingly funny.
The Joan Rivers of today is best described by a friend near the end of A Piece of Work, who says, "You can't get hit by lightning unless you stay out in the rain for a long time." Rivers, as we learn, will do just about anything for that next lightning strike. Like, for instance, allowing a camera crew to film a documentary about an aging star trying to stay famous. Look who's relevant again! You have to wonder whether that was her plan all along.
Joan Rivers: A Piece of Work concludes its run at the Wilma Theatre Thursday, Aug. 19.