Everyone thinks they know Joan Rivers. And they do. They know part of her persona and her performances, but they don't know Joan Rivers."
Filmmaker Ricki Stern is talking about the documentary she directed with Annie Sundberg, called Joan Rivers: A Piece of Work, a frank look at the cracks beneath the lacquer of the showbiz veteran's life in and out of the spotlight.
I met Stern, Sundberg, and Rivers just a few days after the film's January world premiere at the Sundance Film Festival. The directors sat on a couch while Rivers kibitzed about the outsize hotel room and her oversize jewelry — from her own line, she was quick to point out — and clicked like a locator device before she settled into a chair to join the conversation.
"The Joan Rivers I was hoping we were going to get is this person who works without stopping, is completely driven and passionate about her work," Stern said. That they got, but also more. "There's so much depth to her, but quite honestly because she is so out there in the media, the challenge is to bring the resonance — what does it mean? Why is she doing this?"
To find out, the filmmakers followed Rivers for 14 months, starting with her 75th birthday in summer 2008. (She will be 77 on June 8.) Rivers keeps such an overwhelmingly busy schedule — including stand-up, book promotion, and TV appearances — that Stern and Sundberg simply didn't have the resources to capture everything in her life. One of the film's most disarmingly insightful scenes, when Rivers shoots down a heckler at a stand-up date in a Wisconsin casino, was captured by cinematographer Charles Miller after he dutifully traveled alone to film her.
Stern and Sundberg have previously made documentaries with titles like The Devil Came on Horseback and The Trials of Darryl Hunt, earnest films on a human-rights activist in Darfur or the American legal system. "They're very serious, and that's good," said Rivers of what made her agree to the project. "They weren't just going to go for the light and fluff. So that's very good. I just wanted to show a lot about age, and I thought that's a great way to do it. I don't want to hear you can't or you shouldn't or you're over or sit on the shelf and take your accolades. That's so boring."
The remarkable year chronicled in the film — the ups of winning Celebrity Apprentice, the downs of failing to bring an autobiographical play to New York — encapsulates an entire life in show business. Moving with ease from seedy nightclubs where she hones her act to the large casino stages where she leaves audiences gasping at what they've just heard, Rivers wields her abrasive bluntness as sword and shield. Yet now at an age where she is frequently feted as an influence to such followed-in-her-footsteps comedians as Sarah Silverman and Kathy Griffin, Rivers sometimes feels as if she is being celebrated with one hand and pushed out the door by the other.
"Past tense!" she interrupted, ruefully noting how her career is often referenced. "And that really doesn't help when you're in Vegas. You want to say to them, 'I'm working better than ever now, because I have nothing to lose anymore. I've been fired, I've been bankrupt, I've been through everything. What are you going to do to me? Here's what I do, and if you like it, come and see me.' It's very free."
In some ways Rivers is one of the original oversharers, putting front-and-center what others might try to gloss over. She stirred controversy early in her career by making a joke on TV about a friend who kept flying to Puerto Rico for "appendectomies" — the punch line was that the audience knew she was really talking about abortion. After the suicide of her husband, Edgar Rosenberg, Rivers and her daughter played themselves in a TV movie about their family struggles. In A Piece of Work, she shows her inner fragility, worrying about money and crying on camera.
Has Rivers ever revealed too much? "I have, and it's worked for me and given me my career," she said. "I have to tell the truth, and that's a plus and a minus. But it's worked more as a plus for me. People either like me or hate me, but you know where I stand on every issue. You have to tell the truth, otherwise what are you saying? Nothing."
The film sets its course from the very first shots, extreme close-ups of Rivers having makeup applied to her face, revealing lines from age and plastic surgery alike. "When they're there for a year, Charles can do whatever he wants," Rivers said of shooting the sequence. "And you don't know what lens the son of a bitch has."
"It wasn't trying to be deceptive in any way," Stern countered. "I figured she kind of got that it was barefaced, she knew she had no makeup on. So I don't know that it was that startling."
"I think it's such a great metaphor for everything in the whole film," added Rivers, angling for the last word on the subject. "The first time I saw it I thought, this is good from the minute it starts. It's not just 'Here's Joan and everybody loves her.' I would have killed them if that's what it was."
Joan Rivers: A Piece of Work does a particularly convincing and thorough job of repositioning Rivers, revealing her deep-seated uncertainty and restless, relentless fearlessness in the face of it, so much so that the film could set the comic persona she has been honing for decades off its axis. It may in fact be hard for audiences to look at the comedian quite the same way again.
"How much longer do I have?" she said. "I don't care what they think."