An icon under the microscope

Michael Phillips | Boulder Weekly

There`s a scene in the gripping documentary Joan Rivers: A Piece of Work guaranteed to complicate whatever feelings you have about the movie’s turbulent subject. Rivers, who says in the film that she’d knock out her own teeth if she could get a dentures commercial out of it, has traveled to a Lac du Flambeau, Wis., casino to perform stand-up. She tells a Helen Keller joke. Someone in the audience yells “Not very funny,” especially (the heckler continues) if you “happen to have a deaf son,” as he does.

A few nerve-racking seconds later, the man has been verbally demolished by one of the fastest mouths in American entertainment.

Now 77, the woman born Joan Molinsky has long reprocessed her life, angst and comic’s rage as fodder for the public and bookings for her calendar. A full book? “That’s happiness,” she says. Rivers turned 14 months of that hectic life over to documentarians Ricki Stern and Annie Sundberg. The result travels from casino hecklers to “Celebrity Apprentice” to quieter moments (angsty in a different way), such as Rivers thumbing through a TV pilot script, muttering: “I can’t find me anywhere.”

Here is a comedy icon who declares, flatly: “I am a comedy icon.” Here is a “plastic surgery freak,” in the words of her (soon to be ex-) manager, Billy Sammeth, who was never told she was beautiful by any man. This seems odd:

When you see pictures of her in her Second City days, 49 years ago, you see an ingenue with a difference.

In the 1980s, Rivers was riding high and became Johnny Carson’s go-to guest host. Then she and her husband — the oft-remarked-upon “Edgar,” producer-writer Edgar Rosenberg, with whom Rivers has a daughter, Melissa — took a talk show offer from Fox that came to grief, never got on the air, caused an immediate split from Carson and (Rivers claims) contributed to Rosenberg’s suicide. A few years later, Joan and Melissa played themselves in a TV movie about coping with Rosenberg’s death. With this woman, the boundary between her public self and private self exists only in the minds of others.

Stern and Sundberg made The Devil Came on Horseback (about the massacres in Darfur) and The Trials of Darryl Hunt (about a wrongful incarceration nightmare), and they have a fine eye for detail. In her voluminous joke files, for example, we learn that Rivers places “Much Married Women” next to “My Sex Life.” The most affecting moment in Joan Rivers: A Piece of Work finds Rivers speculating in advance of her Comedy Central roast regarding the type of jokes the invited comedians will be making at her expense. She ticks them off with deadly accuracy: face-lifts, red-carpet interview whoring, more face-lifts. For a moment, that oft-hoisted face is crestfallen. Then she’s on again, and off and running. Watching the sprint is fascinating.

—MCT, Tribune Media Respond: