After reading one glowing review too many, I reluctantly watched the new documentary about Joan Rivers this week, A Piece of Work. It’s filthy and more than a little disturbing – I certainly don’t feel comfortable recommending it – but it’s also about as unflinching in its honesty about show business, aging, career and, to beat an (un-)dead horse, achievement as anything I’ve seen, well, ever. Sort of a Hollywood counterpart to Scorcese’s terrific Frannie Lebowitz doc, Public Speaking, albeit considerably more profane and tragic, and a whole lot nastier – you have to laugh or you’ll cry. Although there’s some interesting gender commentary mixed in, A Piece of Work mainly functions as a cautionary tale about ambition, depicted here as pure fear-motivated self-aggrandizement and therefore an engine of profound sadness, the extreme situation that sheds light on all others. The writer for The Worchester Telegram of all places highlighted two of the more poignant moments:
Rivers never remarried after the suicide of her husband, Edgar. At one point, we see her on a radio talk show talking about plastic surgery and the superficiality of looks. Doesn’t she want to be loved for her soul? asks the hostess. Rivers replies, “I just want to be loved.”
The documentary is at times hysterical, cringe-worthy and achingly sad. Many critics have focused on Rivers’ obsession with celebrity, but I think they miss the point that, as an older female in show business, she’s also obsessed with staying young and relevant. If she wants to keep working, she has to be. And she’s clearly not ready to retire, explaining that her desire to perform is a sense of calling.
“Ask a nun why she’s a nun,” she says. “I had no choice.”
This clip from the Associated Press, which unlike most of the movie, is safe for work, and is pretty good too: