Joan Rivers is a polarizing figure in popular culture. Some see her as a boundary-busting comedy pioneer whose tenure as guest host on The Tonight Show opened doors for every woman in the industry who came after her. Others simply regard her as a crass and elitist plastic-surgery casualty whose red-carpet diatribes and mean-spirited barbs have worn out their welcome. But whatever side of the fence you’re on, watching the startlingly intimate documentary Joan Rivers: A Piece of Work will leave you with a richer, more multidimensional perspective on this entertainment legend.
True to form, a clip of Rivers on stage in a nightclub—still plugging away at her stand-up act at 75—captures her acidly dropping the C-bomb even before the opening credits roll. And it is with this same candor that Rivers allows filmmakers Ricki Stern and Annie Sundberg unprecedented access to her inner sanctum and everyday life on the road. For each clip we see of Rivers ragging on fat people, there’s another of her sharing tender personal moments with her plus-sized handlers; examples of her claiming on stage to hate children are juxtaposed with quiet scenes of her lavishing her young grandson with affection; and segments depicting Rivers as a decadently wealthy entrepreneur contrast starkly with images of her delivering holiday meals to the destitute in her native N.Y.C.
Clearly a woman of complexity and deep contradictions who was born with a work ethic rarely seen since the Great Depression, Rivers is one of only a few comedians alive today whose life could so ably fill a feature film. Fresh off the festival circuit where it got tongues wagging at Sundance and Tribeca, A Piece of Work is a work of art that should not be missed.