Joan Rivers, Revealed

'A Piece of Work' documentary gives raw, riveting look into showbiz life

By Chris Azzopardi

People roll their eyes at Joan Rivers nowadays. They cringe listening to her raucous rasp. They gawk at the copious amounts of plastic surgery she's undergone and call her a "freak."

But close-ups of Rivers' makeup-free face being done up during the first few seconds of "Joan Rivers: A Piece of Work" is an appropriate launch to the vanity shrouding the time-tested comedian (don't call her a legend, she says in the film: "Go fuck yourself. I still open the doors!"), as it acknowledges what the entertainer has become in her 75th year of her life (she's now 77). And it's not all kicks and giggles, even if there are plenty of laughs; this is, after all, a film about Rivers - a ballsy-ass blonde who knows no limits and has spawned many imitators, including Sarah Silverman and Kathy Griffin (who speaks about Rivers' influence on camera).

Funny guffaws from her stand-up archives, where she tested audiences on mum issues like abortion, are dovetailed between current for-the-film footage, as she fights the stigma of old, washed-up celebrity. Clearly, she's benefited from the breaking of social taboos; there's a bit about anal sex multi-tasking, something the gays she's embraced should especially find funny. But as big as her balls are, even chiding an offended heckler in the middle of a show during this documentary, Rivers isn't as durable as the plastic on the outside.

Rivers is hungry for work, never letting a gig slip by - at one point going into a remote conservative Wisconsin town (so remote, she tells the camera, laughing: "When I say, 'Where are the gays?' They're gonna say, 'Dead. We killed 'em.'"). She'll even wear a diaper in an ad if she has to.

"Let me show you fear," Rivers says, holding up an empty calendar - revealing the clean white pages that make her feel, she admits, unwanted. "Celebrity Apprentice" fills some of that blank space, but Rivers is only doing it for the major network attention - to be noticed again.

But "A Piece of Work" extends outside of desperation, giving Rivers' topsy-turvy life more depth than the surface has allowed for in recent years: her daughter, Melissa, gives very honest insight; Rivers talks about her stint on "The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson" - and their fall out; and, in one of the film's most vulnerable moments, how susceptible she is to even mild criticism.

"You can say I'm not a good comedian; it doesn't bother me. You say you didn't like me as an actress, you've killed me," she admits, breaking down in near tears as her assistant reads her a so-so review of an autobiographical one-woman show she performed in London.

That's not the Rivers we know. The one who seems almost impermeable to showbiz blows, but is exceedingly bitter about sustaining swagger in the youth-driven Hollywood pantheon. Therein lies the strength of Ricki Stern and Anne Sundberg's intimate documentary, a revolutionary look-in-the-life-of that doesn't just cover Rivers' comedic genius, but turns her caricature into an oil painting - expelling face-value ridicule for the many layers of a hard-working woman who's surprisingly amiable, determined, resilient, insecure and inspiring. It's a role that can only garner her rave reviews. Grade: A

'Joan Rivers: A Piece of Work'

Starts Friday, June 18

Maple Art Theatre

4135 W. Maple Road, Bloomfield Hills

http://www.landmarktheaters.com

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