LOS ANGELES (Reuters) - If cosmetic makeovers mask our most unsavory features, then a new documentary has stripped away the many changes Joan Rivers has made to herself over the years and laid bare the comedian at age 77.
“Joan Rivers - A Piece of Work” reaches movie theaters in major U.S. cities on Friday, and with it comes an unflinching look at the woman who rose through male-dominated comedy clubs in the 1960s to become a regular on U.S. television.
She famously saw her personal and financial life spiral downward after the suicide of her husband and manager, Edgar Rosenberg, in 1987. But Rivers regained her career footing as a commentator of Hollywood red carpet fashion and, perhaps with the aid of cosmetic surgery, found herself a rejuvenated star.
Rivers told Reuters that with the documentary, she wanted to “show age and how age can be a barrier to people” and said the biggest misconception about her is that she is all about the “Golden Past” when her current act “is sharper than ever.”
“I also thought it might be a good time to show a slice of my life because I hadn’t done an autobiography in 15 years, and this was sort of a lazy person’s way of doing it,” she joked.
But “A Piece of Work” is no joke. It was made by documentary filmmakers Ricki Stern and Annie Sundberg, whose past credits include a tale of the Darfur genocide, “The Devil Came on Horseback,” and the story of a man wrongly convicted of rape and murder, “The Trials of Darryl Hunt.”
In Rivers’ life, they saw a universal tale of an underdog who finds huge success, tumbles from lofty heights and rebounds by reinvention. For her part, Rivers saw a pair of storytellers who would dig into psyche and show it — warts and all.
“I loved them because they weren’t going to do a puff piece,” Rivers said. “There have been a few documentaries out there lately, and you knew nothing of the people at the end. So why do them? That was exactly what I didn’t want,” she said.
Stern and Sundberg started filming Rivers on her 75th birthday and followed her for 14 months, which was no easy feat due to her heavy schedule. The pair describe a two-day period in which Rivers gave a morning speech, signed books, performed stand-up, flew across the United States for a talk show, then returned across country to hold a dinner party for friends.
While telling of her current life, the film flashes back to Rivers as a young stand-up, making it to late-night TV’s “The Tonight Show” where she became fill-in for Johnny Carson.
It also tells how Carson, when Rivers jumped to a rival network in 1986 to start her own “The Late Show Starring Joan Rivers,” turned his back on her and never talked to her again, which Rivers chalks up to her being a woman in a man’s world.
The most trying times came after Rosenberg died and Rivers found herself in financial ruin while still raising their teenage daughter, Melissa. When asked what was worse, losing her husband or having to work harder in life than she ever had just to regain her financial footing, she chose the latter.
“Of course, finances. You have no time to mourn when you have to worry how are we going to keep the house,” she said.
Starting in the 1990s, Rivers’ brash style of comedy that cut through the facade of how people act or what they say — her first catch phrase was “Can We Talk” — lent itself greatly to Hollywood and fashion.
Rivers began commenting on red carpet gowns and the antics of celebrities, often with Melissa by her side. She went back out on the road, wrote books and starred in a one-woman show.
She never stopped working and never stopped trying to regain her youth through cosmetic surgery — a fact that has earned her much criticism in pop culture that she shrugs off.
“We’re in a youth-oriented world. Men like to look at pretty pictures,” Rivers said. “Anything that makes you get through life a little happier, do it. For God’s sake, do it.”
On what she wants audiences to learn from her life, as told in “A Piece of Work,” Rivers is just as candid.
“My life has proven — and I hope to others that go through things that seem insurmountable — find another way in,” she said. “You know, I like to say, they may take out a vein, but you find another way to keep the blood flowing.”
Editing by Jill Serjeant