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Film Review: Joan Rivers A Piece of Work

Updated on July 16, 2010
Mighty Mom profile image

Mighty Mom is a keen observer of life. She shares her personal experiences and opinions in helpful and often amusing ways.

I did not expect to enjoy this documentary chronicling a year in the life of 75-year-old comedienne Joan Rivers. But I did.

I did expect to be disturbed by certain aspects of her life. And I was. But the disturbing parts had nothing to do with her many, many plastic surgeries.

I learned a lot about Joan Rivers that I didn't know. I corrected misconceptions I'd held based on years of slanted media coverage. I laughed at some of her jokes, and cringed at others.

In the end, I'm still sorting through the layers of revelation, trying to determine how I feel about her. And the truth is, it's not that simple. She's not that simple. Not hardly.

Evolution of a Legend

Joan Rivers: Workaholic

The overriding theme of the film is Joan's tenacity and stick-to-it-iveness. Starting as a comedy writer, she was "discovered" as a stand-up by Johnny Carson in the 1960s.

Not only is she still going full bore at 75, she has no intention of letting up. In fact, her goal is to surpass Don Rickles (still working in his late 80s) and George Burns (who worked until his late 90s).

What drives her? She is deathly afraid of white space in her calendar. If she's not booked from sun-up through 5am she considers it a bad day. There are many, many scenes of her arriving in a podunk town to do two shows, then catching a plane at 4 am to go to the next town (or home to New York).

Movie Trailer

Elegant Joan

Available on QVC

Joan Rivers: Elegant Lady

When Joan is in her element -- her luxurious Manhattan apartment -- she is like a modern-day Marie Antionette. Except she is kind to and very fond of her staff. The apartment itself looks like a palace. Joan never, ever looks like anything but a queen.

There are many scenes of Joan getting her hair and makeup done. Even in these she is always dressed beautifully. I didn't count, but I don't think I saw her in the same outfit twice. Always elegant, tasteful and refined. Oh, and the JEWELRY! My movie partner knew this (I did not): Joan hawks her jewelry on QVC.

Why do I bring this up? I guess because I am so used to seeing Joan Rivers stereotyped as the Botox-gone-wrong queen. Sure, if you look really close at her nose, chin, etc. you will see the evidence. But overall, Joan Rivers looks like a class-A grand dame from head to toe, start  to finish.

Joan Rivers: Ground-breaking Comedienne

Again, because my recent exposure to Joan Rivers has been confined to her Red Carpet commentary, I had forgotten how ground-breaking her humor was (and still is).

Joan has been finding humor in indelicate subjects like abortion, vagina farts, anal sex and tampons since the 1960s. That's the unexpected thing. Here's this tiny little woman, dressed to the nines in sequins and fur, her hair coiffed perfectly, bejewelled like a queen. Yet when she opens her mouth, it's not just a potty, but an entire sewer's worth of filth. I mean, it takes a lot to make Johnny Carson blush, but you can tell she had that ability!

I didn't keep score, but would guess I laughed out loud at 70% of her jokes and covered my mouth in shock the rest of the time.

Joan Rivers: Tough But Tender

The film did an excellent job of balancing, never reducing Joan Rivers to any one "label." She truly is resiliant. She has suffered unbearable personal tragedy. Yet she has not crumbled under it. She has not even been hardened by it. She does not see herself as a victim. She sees herself as the consummate survivor.

When it comes to her daughter Melissa, also an actress, she is the quintessential Mama Bear. There is also a touching scene in which Joan and her grandson head off on Thanksgiving morning to deliver food to shut-ins (an annual ritual for Joan). Joan's raw affection for the boy -- and his for her -- is heart-wrenching.

Joan Rivers: Conflicted Vulnerability

During the film Joan engages in three distinct types of work.

1. COMMERCIAL GIGS. To keep her schedule filled (and her lifestyle financed) she will take ANYTHING. She will schill Extenze or denture cream. She will write and sign books. No offer is too small or too demeaning.

2. STAND-UP COMEDY.She basically lives for stand-up comedy. And again, no gig is too small or too remote.We see her play in Wisconsin,The Betty Ford Clinic in Palm Springs, a club in The Bronx.

When she is invited to participate in a tribute to George Carlin at the Kennedy Center in Washington, DC, we see Joan's insecurity at work. As the list of co-presenters is read, she verbalizes her opinion of each. For example, "Gary Shandling: Brilliant." "Jon Stewart: Smart." "Lily Tomlin: Brilliant." "Ben Stiller: Lucky." It's as if she is mentally sizing up her "competition" (which she clearly considers them). After her presentation she sums up her own performance thus, "I was funnier than some, not as funny as others. At least I didn't embarrass myself."

3. ACTING. Joan writes a play (featuring herself) and assembles a director and cast to perform it. Her plan is to preview the play in Edinburgh. If it does well there (it does) she will take it to London. If it does well enough there she will consider bringing it to New York. But the spectre of bad reviews decades before hangs over her head.

In London her show is lauded by audiences but not the critics. Her pride cannot take any more rejection. She decides to close the show in London and move on to other projects.

What I found most interesting about the play situation is the importance Joan places on it. She is devestated by the fact that she will never be taken seriously as an ACTOR.

When I heard her say that I thought, "Well, duh. You are a comedienne. That is your identity and has been for 50+ years. If you'd wanted to be taken seriously as an actress, perhaps you should have taken a different direction in your career..."

Joan Rivers: Summary

I considered writing a sidebar to this Hub with some "Did you know?" fun facts about Joan Rivers.Then I thought better of it. If I reveal too many tidbits, you'll have no reason to go and experience this film yourself!

In summary, let me say that you don't have to be a fan of documentaries, or of Joan Rivers, to enjoy this film. It's visually rich, with a ton of juxtopositions (for example, Joan in sequins walking through a shabby hallway to go on stage). It presents a 360 degree view of its subject, without forcing any one interpretation on the viewer.

Days later, I'm still thinking about what I saw and heard. I have a newfound respect, but also a smidgeon of pity, for this prolific funny lady.

I encourage you to see "Joan Rivers: A Piece of Work" and add your comments to mine.

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    • letstalkabouteduc profile image

      McKenna Meyers 2 years ago from Bend, OR

      I watched the documentary shortly after Joan's death, and I'm glad I did. Wow, she was a hard-working woman and a true pioneer for women in comedy. I loved her files and files of jokes on every possible topic. Yes, there were definitely tragic parts. Going from club to club at her age and status seemed sad. Wanting to be recognized as an actress seemed surprising and strange. Revitalizing her career with a win on Celebrity Apprentice seemed degrading. She was certainly one-of-a-kind and will be missed.

    • MarleneB profile image

      Marlene Bertrand 5 years ago from Northern California, USA

      I remember as a chilld, being in the room with my mother as she watched Joan Rivers. I think it was a talk show or something like that. Whatever it was, I remember my mother tuning in to it every day. Joan was funny. She made my mother laugh and that made me laugh. Joan Rivers is one of those people I wish could live forever. She really is a funny lady - one of the few comediennes who makes me laugh out loud.

    • gmwilliams profile image

      Grace Marguerite Williams 5 years ago from the Greatest City In The World-New York City, New York

      MM, I have the abovementioned documentary on dvd. Joan Rivers is indeed a phenomenal woman. She is a piece of work but in a very positive sense. She demonstrates that adversity makes one stronger and that age is just a number. She is now 79 years young and keeps on getting younger and stronger. She is also a realist, I like her spot on commentary on life, sex, women, men, and relationships.

      She is one of my favorite comediennes with Wanda Sykes, another spitfire. Ms. Rivers also wrote a book regarding plastic surgery entitled, Men Are Stupid..............And They Like Big Boobs, A Woman's Guide To Beauty Through Plastic Surgery. Great book! Great write, MM on the QUEEN of comedy!

    • Stevennix2001 profile image

      Steven Escareno 6 years ago

      I think there is. Maybe not as publicly or as glamorous, as Michael Vick's story. However, I think James Toback said it best when he said the film is more like a confessional by Mike Tyson, rather than a documentary, as it's narrated by Tyson himself. Tyson even admits that he made a lot of mistakes, in the documentary.

      However, if you want to read my full opinion about it then you can read my review that I wrote on it last year.

      https://hubpages.com/entertainment/Tyson

      It's a pretty good if your into watching psychological documentaries.

    • Mighty Mom profile image
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      Susan Reid 6 years ago from Where Left is Right, CA

      Hi again, Steven. Well shoot! Where's the incentive for me to see this Mike Tyson movie? You've written a very thorough review right here -- maybe you should make it into a hub!

      My life is full of people who are not bad people/not good people who have a lot of psychological issues. The difference is they are not making millions of dollars because of it. And they are out there helping others -- for free. Is there redemption in Tyson's story?

      IDK, I think the Michael Vick story has more appeal for me.

      Happy 2nd weekend of 2011 to you. Always delightful to meet up on the pages of HP. MM

    • Stevennix2001 profile image

      Steven Escareno 6 years ago

      Yeah, you'd be right to assume the part of wife beater, as that was one of the things he was infamously known for outside of boxing. To be honest, I lost all respect for Tyson for that incident and lost whatever little was left after the ear biting incident as well.

      However, what I liked about the movie was that it offered a deep psychological introspective about his personality to where even if you hate the guy, you'll still come liking the movie because of how deeply it delves into the man's psyche. In fact, after watching it, I don't think he was a bad guy per say, I do think he was a man with a lot of psychological problems due to his upbringing. In fact, his one line where he says, "The only thing that kept me sane in prison was my own insanity", that line right there pretty much sums up Mike Tyson to me at least. He's not a bad person, nor a good person either. No, he's just a man with a lot of psychological issues.

      Plus, if you rent out the dvd, you should check out the behind the scenes feature, as the director James Toback offers a lot of interesting comments about the documentary.

      If you do have a chance to see the movie, you'll have to let me know what you think of it, as I would love to hear your reaction to it. Anyways, I hope you have a great weekend in case i don't see ya.

    • Mighty Mom profile image
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      Susan Reid 6 years ago from Where Left is Right, CA

      Thanks for the comment! I must admit I was not much of a Joan Rivers fan before seeing this film. It did offer a more unbiased, balanced view. Sort of the softer side of Joan but also not sparing the rough stuff. If you get it through Netflix or the Red Box or however you rent movies, I would love to know your reaction.

      And perhaps I will give Mr. Tyson an opportunity to redeem himself (although not a boxing fan at all and isn't he also something of a wife beater with Robin Givens or am I mixing him up with someone else?)

      Anyway, cheers! MM

    • Stevennix2001 profile image

      Steven Escareno 6 years ago

      Pretty good review. Although I wasn't planning on seeing this movie, I just might now based solely on what you said in this hub. However, from how you described the movie, it sounds very similar to 2009's "Tyson" documentary. Where the film was made in such a way that it allowed for the viewer to judge the man for themselves without focusing on one stereotype or the other, but rather just detailing facts and events of his life. Of course, I could be wrong, as I haven't seen "Joan Rivers: A Piece of Work", but this is how it sounds like from reading your review. If that is the case, then I'll be sure to enjoy it then. anyways, thanks for the read. cheers!

    • Ashantina profile image

      Ashantina 6 years ago

      I'm now curious to watch this documentary about her. Seems like she has an interesting story...

    • dinesh c bhatt profile image

      dinesh c bhatt 7 years ago from India (Noida)

      Great review............Great hub!!!

    • Mighty Mom profile image
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      Susan Reid 7 years ago from Where Left is Right, CA

      Thanks! If you haven't go see the movie!

    • ultracutebot profile image

      ultracutebot 7 years ago from cybertron

      Loved this review. Thank you :)

    • Mighty Mom profile image
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      Susan Reid 7 years ago from Where Left is Right, CA

      Hi A. Villarasa.

      Joan Rivers is definitely in the Mighty Moms club. One of the strongest impressions I came away with is her mama bear protectiveness of Melissa.

      She has to work and work and work, not so much to maintain her lifestyle (not nearly as lavish as some stars in Hollywood) but because that is who she IS. SHE is determined to stay busy and stay relevant. God bless her!

      Thanks for your comment -- one MM to another:-)

    • A.Villarasa profile image

      Alexander A. Villarasa 7 years ago from Palm Springs

      Great piece and from one Mighty Mom to another Joan Rivers should be very proud of your review. I have always appreciated Joan's work ethic (and her brand of comedy too) but I guess she had to work and work and work and work to maintain that lavish lifestyle.

    • Mighty Mom profile image
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      Susan Reid 7 years ago from Where Left is Right, CA

      Hi KKalmes. Thanks for your comment. I would start with a post in the "suggest a new feature" forum. I will find the exact place. Doesn't have to be an "elite" task force -- there is such a thing as "Hub Pages Elite" tho. These are hubbers who volunteer time to various Hub Pages functions/projects.

    • KKalmes profile image

      KKalmes 7 years ago from Chicago, Illinois

      cool, I will take on the formation of a "team of elites"... I don't know exactly what that means, but I am up for the task.

      who do I contact?

    • Mighty Mom profile image
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      Susan Reid 7 years ago from Where Left is Right, CA

      Hey KKalmes! Thanks for visiting. Glad I could interest you in the Joan Rivers flick. It really, truly exceeded my expectations!

      Yes, we could use some new hub ratings! I suggest you volunteer with the HP admin team to make a new "team of elites" to tackle this very problem. I'd serve on it with ya!

    • KKalmes profile image

      KKalmes 7 years ago from Chicago, Illinois

      Hello MM, thank you for the tribute to Joan, she has been a unique comedian for so many years I can't think when I first saw her, but I bet it was on Johnny Carson. She could really run circles around today's comedy central comics.

      I will definitely rent the movie... the title is perfection.

      thumbs up and useful because we really need some new ratings... excellent, interesting, well-written, great insights, noteworthy, classic, etc.

    • Shinkicker profile image

      Shinkicker 7 years ago from Scotland

      Nice Hub Mighty Mom

      I remember when Joan Rivers first appeared on British TV about 30 years ago. She was like hilarious and outrageous at the same time.

    • Mighty Mom profile image
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      Susan Reid 7 years ago from Where Left is Right, CA

      Hi James! Always a man of taste.Thanks for visiting. MM

    • James A Watkins profile image

      James A Watkins 7 years ago from Chicago

      I very much enjoyed your Hub. I agree with your assessment of Ms. Rivers. Though I am not a big fan of hers, I do admire her tenacity and success. She is a winner. That's for sure.

    • Mighty Mom profile image
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      Susan Reid 7 years ago from Where Left is Right, CA

      Well I would LOVE to see a hub showcasing your jewelry acquistions! I must say, the jewelry in the film is STUNNING. She is always, always dressed (and bejeweled) beautifully.

      Thanks for commenting, my wise and FASHIONABLE friend! MM

    • drpastorcarlotta profile image

      Pastor Dr. Carlotta Boles 7 years ago from BREAKOUT MINISTRIES, INC. KC

      I have aquired some jewerly pieces from Joan. She is a very fashionable person! GREAT HUB my friend!!!!!

    • Mighty Mom profile image
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      Susan Reid 7 years ago from Where Left is Right, CA

      It was not on my list, either. But that's what my film buddy wanted to go and see. And I'm really glad I went. I learned something -- always a bonus!

      If it comes on cable/satellite sometime you might change your mind and check it out... or not:-).

      Thanks for the comment, Cags

    • Cagsil profile image

      Cagsil 7 years ago from USA or America

      Hey Mighty Mom, nicely written hub/review. I have never been into Joan Rivers, but did like George Carlin(#1 comic all-time). Sure, she was funny and then again, like you said, you wouldn't believe some of the stuff that comes out of her mouth. But, hey that's a comic for you, always trying to make almost any situation more bearable and fun. I can honestly say that I'm not likely to see the film, but I do appreciate your effort to bring it to others. Thank you for sharing. :)

    • Mighty Mom profile image
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      Susan Reid 7 years ago from Where Left is Right, CA

      Hi billaustindillon.

      I agree. She is very, very protective of her daughter and I think that's wonderful. I really gained a lot MORE respect for her from this film. Thanks for visiting and commenting. MM

    • billyaustindillon profile image

      billyaustindillon 7 years ago

      I think she has that great ability to laugh at herself. She is a true surviver and I do enjoy her with also. I think of Phyllis Diller a bit with her but definitely she is her own woman and a real protector for her daughter. There is a lot to admire about Joan Rivers and I think over the years she will be admired as very strong woman who did it her way.

    • 50 Caliber profile image

      50 Caliber 7 years ago from Arizona

      M,M. I find this quite intriguing, number one there is no way I could dismiss her greatness of talent, she has it in many venues, and I have laughed at her jokes and she so excels there, I have also seen her shrewd side, I think of her as a shrill shrew as a business woman, but that in no way effects my ability to enjoy the performances I have enjoyed from the audience. Her accomplishments are vast and it is only her who has to sleep at night in her practices of business, that said I do applaud this hub, 50

    • Micky Dee profile image

      Micky Dee 7 years ago

      Joan Rivers makes me laugh! That's a great gift!

    • Mighty Mom profile image
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      Susan Reid 7 years ago from Where Left is Right, CA

      Thanks, Mike. You're right. There will never be anyone quite like Johnny Carson or Joan Rivers. Kathy Griffin tries, but she ain't got the class of Joan.

      It is unfortunate that so many people DO define her by her plastic surgeries. She's soooo much more.

    • Mike Lickteig profile image

      Mike Lickteig 7 years ago from Lawrence KS USA

      Joan Rivers is from a generation of great comedians that hopefully won't be forgotten as time goes by. The plastic surgeries are unfortunate because she was not ugly, but they do not define her. Thanks for your tribute to a funny lady that deserves to be remembered.

      Mike

    • Mighty Mom profile image
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      Susan Reid 7 years ago from Where Left is Right, CA

      Hello Nellieanna,

      I would never have guessed you're "3 years her senior" - you look, as our friend Billy Crystal (another comedy classic) says, MAHVELOUS!

      I so agree with you. Being uniquely oneself is a worthwhile goal. And JR is definitely that.

      I do hope you have an opportunity to see this movie -- maybe when it comes out on DVD.

      Thanks for visiting. MM

    • Nellieanna profile image

      Nellieanna Hay 7 years ago from TEXAS

      I've always loved the old broad. (haha - I'm 3 years her senior and in my own peer group I've almost never been older-than! But no botox, face lifts or diamonds for me! haha! Maybe there's a lesson for me in there somewhere).

      But she is a riot and always unique and all Joan Rivers. That's an ideal (not being her - but being uniquely all oneself) worth lauding. I'm glad to read this reviw! I hadn't heard of this new venture before! You told it so expertly, too - I'll bet JR would love to read it!

    • Mighty Mom profile image
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      Susan Reid 7 years ago from Where Left is Right, CA

      OMG -- The Everready Bunny! That's IT! That's exactly who she is. Thanks for that insight, Nevada Logan! MM

    • Nevada Logan profile image

      Nevada Logan 7 years ago from USA

      I always loved Joan Rivers. Her comedy is raunchy and she says things we only think about! I really grew my respect for her when I saw her on Celebrity Apprentice. She is like the Everyready bunny, she just keeps on and on and on.

    • KoffeeKlatch Gals profile image

      Susan Haze 7 years ago from Sunny Florida

      Great write up about Joan Rivers - she certain is a unique lady. It's an eye-opener for people who only think of her as a comdeian with sometimes bad jokes. There's a lot more to her than meets the eye. Thanks

    • Mighty Mom profile image
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      Susan Reid 7 years ago from Where Left is Right, CA

      I'm envious NN. I would like to see her. She is at her best in person on stage.

      Thanks for commenting. MM

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      Nancy's Niche 7 years ago

      Joan Rivers is a riot! I attended one of her shows and laughed hysterically...

    • Mighty Mom profile image
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      Susan Reid 7 years ago from Where Left is Right, CA

      Hi dear classy ladies,

      Thanks for taking the time to reeducate yourselves about Joan Rivers. You nailed it, Lynda.

      Most of us HAD dismissed her as a bad joke. I definitely changed my view.

      Her kindness and her intelligence (Barnard College) surprised me.

      Whether or not we like her humor, she has the ability to make people laugh!

    • alekhouse profile image

      Nancy Hinchliff 7 years ago from Essex Junction, Vermont

      Really nice profile of an interesting and talented lady. Thanks.

    • lmmartin profile image

      lmmartin 7 years ago from Alberta and Florida

      Thanks for presenting another side to this woman most of us had dismissed as a bad joke -- interesting and eye-opening. Lynda

    • Mighty Mom profile image
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      Susan Reid 7 years ago from Where Left is Right, CA

      Hi Mentalist acer. You nailed it. She absolutely is!

      Pamela99 -- Thanks. I guess I always enjoyed her, too. Now I am really a fan.

      Girlincape -- Go see the movie if you get a chance!!

      Prasetio -- Not sure the movie is out in DVD yet. At least here in CA it is still in theatres. But definitely check it out however you can!

      Thanks all for your comments. MM

    • prasetio30 profile image

      prasetio30 7 years ago from malang-indonesia

      Nice information and good review. I love this movie. I'll try to find this movie at DVD rent. God for this weekend.

    • girlincape profile image

      Kasey Rubenstein 7 years ago from California

      I never knew this much about Joan Rivers. Thanks for the info!

    • Pamela99 profile image

      Pamela Oglesby 7 years ago from United States

      I have always like Joan River. Great review. I enjoyed your hub. Rated up!

    • Mentalist acer profile image

      Mentalist acer 7 years ago from A Voice in your Mind!

      Joan's harder on herself than anybodyelse;)

    • Mighty Mom profile image
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      Susan Reid 7 years ago from Where Left is Right, CA

      Hi HappyHer. I agree. I have a new admiration for her having seen this film. Had a bunch of technical trouble putting this hub together and the videos simply wouldn't "save." I will go back in and add them in. They really add a dimension. You gotta hear her in action.The woman is fricking hilarious!!!

      Thanks for visiting and your comment. MM

    • HappyHer profile image

      HappyHer 7 years ago from Cleveland, OH

      I really admire Joan Rivers. She started out when women weren't well known in the comedy circuit and brought something fresh and entertaining. She's a classic.