Joan Rivers: A Piece Of Work. At the Neon

Joan Rivers: A Piece Of Work. At the Neon

Documentary examines a year in the life of an icon through the night.

by T.T. Stern-Enzi

Joan Rivers in 'Joan Rivers: A Piece of Work' Rated: R. Grade: A-

Just recently, I listened to an ESPN report about Shaq (Shaquille O’Neal) playing for the Boston Celtics. The deal was supposedly on the verge of being signed, but the anchor compared the aging All-Star to the once-hip guy who keeps coming to the club despite the fact that he is now clearly too old. In sports, that happens all the time and for the most part, it is weird. Still, as a sports fan and weekend warrior who happens to be two months older than Brett Favre, I hope Shaq keeps playing, especially at last season’s level.

But what can you say – hope I die before
I get old
?

Joan Rivers: A Piece of Work documents the year that Rivers turned 75, which in almost any other arena would qualify as well-past over the hill, but Rivers, the comedienne, is an icon, a celebrity, and a bit of a joke. It’s that last designation that sticks out in our minds (her face may as well be a surgeon general’s warning against plastic surgery), but it seems that filmmakers Ricki Stern and Anne Sundberg (directing collaborators on The End of America, The Devil Came On Horseback) aim to remind us that the icon ain’t dead yet.

The last few years have been lean ones for Rivers. At one point, she flips through the blank pages of her schedule book, which back in the old days would have been filled with multiple bookings for the finest spots on the touring map, but she fears the white spaces and the backwater gigs she is forced to take in order to pay the bills. Yet, what is immediately obvious is that Rivers shows up and performs like a true professional, no matter the venue; she’s working each and every gig as hard as she can.

It is sad though, when contrasted with the clips and stories from the early days of Rivers as a plucky young comic who seized a guest spot on The Tonight Show and earned high praise from Carson and the ultimate seal of approval, an eventual permanent guest hosting spot, before being banned from NBC for accepting her own hosting gig on another late night show.  She was the toast of the town and a trailblazer, not only for being a woman in this decidedly all-male club, but also for her incendiary (for then) take on social and cultural taboos.

And it is to her credit that she continues to generate sparks, which she does to fabulous effect on some of those out of the way stages that she now plays. She’s still on the prowl, still hungry, but she knows that fame is a game and she proves more than willing to play. There’s a ruthlessness to her too, a win at all costs streak that just won’t die which drives her to throw any and everyone under the bus, even herself, if necessary. Her face certainly bears scars and her relationship with daughter Melissa also suffers from a still raw wound or two.

Even so, Rivers is a work in progress and there’s still a chance that the best is
yet to come.

Joan Rivers: A Piece of Work will be shown exclusively at the Neon Movies.

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