SIFF 2010: Joan Rivers: A Piece of Work ***1/2

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on June 5, 2010)

“Do you want to know what ‘fear’ looks like?” exclaims Joan Rivers, motioning for a close-up of her fingers, as they tamp impatiently on a blank page of a weekly planner, “That is what ‘fear’ looks like.” Later on in the film, she laments “This (show) business is all about rejection.” Any aspiring stand-ups out there need to heed those words of wisdom (and I will back her up on this). Fear and rejection-that’s the reality of stand-up comedy.

That being said, one could also take away much inspiration from Joan Rivers: A Piece of Work– Ricki Stern and Anne Sundberg’s engaging “year in the life” portrait of the plucky, riotously profane 75 year-old, as she rushes from nightclub and casino gigs to TV tapings, taking meetings and sweating over the writing and production of her one-woman stage play.

The film also reviews her ever-vacillating career, from Borscht Belt beginnings to anointment (and eventual blackballing) by Johnny Carson, then slowly back up to middling. What emerges is a woman who is still working her ass off, putting people half her age to shame with a fierce drive to succeed. There’s something to be said for perseverance.

As Kathy Griffin notes, Rivers was instrumental in breaking down barriers for women in standup. Joan, on the other hand, is not so sure. “I swear-if one more female comic comes up and thanks me for kicking the doors open, I’m gonna say: Fuck you! I’m still kicking them open.” Hey…at least she’s still kicking.

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