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Tribeca Talks®: Joan Rivers--A Piece of Work

Audiences got the best of both worlds, a fascinating and fun documentary and non-stop laughs during the After the Movie panel featuring the one and only Joan Rivers.


In their latest documentary, co-directors Ricki Stern and Annie Sundberg's (The Trials of Darryl Hunt, The Devil Came on Horseback, TFF '07) chronicle a year in the life of a working girl, albeit one who is a celebrity at the tender age of 75. The result is Joan Rivers—A Piece of Work, which provides a mesmerizing look into the work, talent, and unsinkable chutzpah required to stay afloat in show biz. Of course, it's easier when your star is as dazzling as Joan Rivers.


"I don't swim without make-up," Rivers mused during the talkback after the sold-out Tribeca premiere of the film. Make-up and plastic surgery were constantly touched upon in the movie, which begins with a close-up on Rivers being painted by her personal make-up artist. The visceral, clownish image segues to another canvas Rivers doesn't like to leave blank—her calendar.


In almost six decades in entertainment, Rivers has done it all: serious theater; guest hosting Johnny Carson's The Tonight Show; hosting several of her own shows; hocking jewelry; parodying herself in cartoons and commercials; and churning out books, CDs, DVDs, and cassette tapes. She also returns, again and again, to small nightclubs to work out her material. Rivers writes everything down she thinks of or overhears. During the talkback she half-jokingly explained, "If I hear it, it's mine."


Interspersed into the scenes from her dizzyingly paced work life are shots of (not at) her personal one. It isn't easy being Joan. Rivers celebrates her birthday with her personal staff, eating a piece of cake at the kitchen counter; she even writes checks for their children's private schools. She also volunteers annually for Gods Love We Deliver by handing out meals to those who are homebound.


Rivers also spends time with her family, both her grandson Cooper and daughter Melissa. The film captures the mother/daughter sojourn on Celebrity Apprentice, and revealing how protective Joan can be, and overbearing. For example, Joan nitpicks at Melissa for not leaving enough time to get her hair done, and based on Melissa's nonplussed reaction, it's clear that mother and daughter have shared this exchange before. There is no residual teen angst in Melissa's response, and she doesn't point out that Donald Trump's network reality show employs a staff to oversee these logistical issues. Instead, Melissa calmly reassures her mother that everything will be fine. Later on, Joan comforts Melissa, after she is eliminated from the show. In turn, Melissa is there when Joan triumphantly wins.



Stern and Sundberg's slice-of-life portrait (or in Rivers' case, slice-of-work) is on par with Jerry Seinfeld's Comedian in deftly depicting the work life of a successful stand-up. The 84-minute documentary doesn't disintegrate into a peppy, talking head-driven puff piece or the manufactured intimacy of an after-school special that overplays the comic's foibles and pathologies. She is, after all, one of the most prolific stand-up comedians—male or female—and it is rare to get a chance to see an artist at work. There is also a great scene in the film where it looks like Rivers is sitting alone in her limo. The camera then reveals her assistant is sitting next to her. Laughing, Joan pretends to chastise him for mucking up the portrait of an artist alone.


After the screening, the audience burst into a standing ovation while Rivers sauntered down the aisle, like a star, in bejeweled stiletto heels. The New York Observer's Rex Reed, also a friend of Rivers, moderated the talkback with the directors and Rivers. She was as much a riot off the cuff as she was in the film. When Stern explained that she and Sundberg didn't inform Rivers that they were filming her without make-up, Rivers said, "I didn't know you were shooting so close until I saw the film... Ah-ha! There goes my chance at a fourth marriage."


Rivers also fielded questions from an audience of adoring fans. One young woman commented that Rivers doesn't get enough credit for creating the phrase, "What are you wearing?" from her red carpet interviews. Rivers was the first reporter to ask celebrities on the red carpet about their clothes. Reed stressed that The New York Times wrote a scathing review of this gauche practice, but Rivers soldiered on, and now it's commonplace. She joked that all people want to know about stars is, "What are you wearing, who are you sleeping with, and are you on drugs?"


Another attendee wanted to know where Rivers draws the line. Rivers revealed that she had asked the directors to cut a scene in the film about Edgar's death out of respect to Melissa. (Rivers' second husband Edgar's suicide came three months after he had sabotaged her late-night show.) She also said that she and her daughter had recently turned down a Clorox campaign, which called for Joan to plug their product on The View and use the word diarrhea. Still, Rivers joked that there is very little she won't do for the right price.


Reed asked when she sleeps, and Rivers said, "On planes." He commented further on her phenomenal, obsessive work habits, to which Rivers candidly replied, "I have no choice. I love my work. I am like a drug addict."


Note to Rivers: audiences are also hooked.


IFC Films will release Joan Rivers—A Piece of Work on June 12. Catch it then!



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