Many trailblazers have documentaries made about them, but the most trenchant career retrospective on film from the past decade may be that of Joan Rivers, who died Thursday at the age of 81. "Joan Rivers: A Piece of Work," the celebrated 2010 documentary about the temperamental seasons that befell the comedian's career, is as much a revelatory exploration of Rivers' legacy as it is a searing portrait of a life married to show-biz aspirations and the mercurial treatment Hollywood sometimes bestows on its most devout denizens.
Younger audiences often think of Rivers as the crass queen of the red carpet, relegated to hurling jabs at celebrities' sartorial choices at award shows and on the weekly E! series "Fashion Police." To the untrained eye, the final decade of Rivers' life may feel like it barely cracks the B list. But anyone who's seen "A Piece of Work," listened to Rivers truly reflect on her career or who can otherwise recall the apex of late-night television that proliferated in the 1960s will know that the comedian has attained nothing short of vanguard-level prestige.
Filmed over the course of 14 months, "A Piece of Work" begins at a low point in Rivers' career. She bemoans the white space in her datebook, which in her mind signals a lack of desirability. But that nadir, like so many of the comedian's others, turns into another success story. By the end, she's been invited to participate in an all-star George Carlin tribute, landed the "Fashion Police" gig and won "The Celebrity Apprentice." Rivers didn't reclaim the dominance she achieved during her days as a frequent Johnny Carson guest and the permanent guest host of "The Tonight Show"
-- when she also became a regular on the variety-show circuit ("The Carol Burnett Show," "Hollywood Squares," "Saturday Night Live") and was nominated for a Grammy for her 1983 comedy album -- but no matter: Rivers had long ago secured legend status. By the time the documentary crew finds her, she has nothing left to prove, even if she refuses to take a day off.
The comedy Rivers introduced that first time she was called over to join Carson onstage in 1965, which makes for one of many poignant moments in "A Piece of Work," was unprecedented. Rivers recalled men cautioning her against jokes about subjects like abortion, saying ladies shouldn't speak of such things. "You are so wrong," she says. "This is exactly what we should be talking about." And therein lied Rivers' brass. Her brand of humor and bawdy persona is sprinkled across the entire modern comedy landscape, male and female, young and old. Her refusal to bend to the judgment of the men in her life or the executives lording over Hollywood starlets is what made -- and, in some unfortunate ways, dampened -- her career.
Carson's fury when Rivers left NBC in 1986 to host her own talk show is an episode for the Hollywood history books: a scorned disciple cast off by her famed mentor, left to pick up the pieces of the self-confidence he helped to imbue in her. It's from that point, as the documentary candidly depicts, that Rivers lost some of her mojo. The troubles that revved up in the wake of Carson having her blacklisted from NBC -- from internal brawls with Fox to sinking ratings and ultimately her husband's suicide -- is perhaps one of the most enlightening depictions of the fleeting nature of fame. Even though she revived her talk-show presence at the end of the '80s with a daytime program that scored her an Emmy for Outstanding Talk Show Host, it wasn't hard to assess the waning stature she unfairly received despite being a primo trailblazer.
But look closer. Listen to her stand-up comedy bits; they ooze with honesty. Hear her talk about why it's vital to use laughter as a coping mechanism for tragedy. Look at her palatial New York penthouse. Watch as she recalls the days when Joan Rivers was an institution, and then look as she proves that no matter the setbacks or the harsh judgment she too often received, she still is.
It's easy to prove the Joan Rivers stamp has manifested itself in the likes of Sandra Bernhard and Kathy Griffin and Amy Schumer, but that isn't giving Rivers enough credit. Even if not everyone appreciated her churlishness, the role she has played in destigmatizing taboo topics must be celebrated, as proven when an 83-year-old Don Rickles fawns over her in "A Piece of Work." That impact is, of course, overshadowed by the shallowness of red-carpet fanfare, just as Rivers' tour-de-force career is dwarfed by fame's abhorrent treatment of aging women. In the movie, she addresses the incessant plastic surgery and the way she started as a rare advocate and ended as a punching bag. She speaks with a glasnost that celebrities rarely do. Making a warts-and-all documentary in one's late 70s is itself quite daring, and for that the movie is both touching and provocative. Rivers always wanted to be an actress but was never taken seriously once she developed her coarse comedic aura, so instead she sums up her career in one of the most evocative self-reflections of any timeworn celebrity: "My life is an actress's life," she says while tearing up. "I play a comedian." It's one of the documentary's saddest, most revealing moments, and yet she doesn't despair or quit. She was still the resilient Joan Rivers she was when Carson dumped her on the NBC studio lot in 1986.
"A Piece of Work" proves that Rivers ended her storied life the same way she began her fame: with the candor that is rigorously sought and seldom found in persons of notoriety. Watching the documentary is like visiting an old friend whose prime many of us only experienced vicariously. At one point, Rivers responds to an interview question about wanting to be liked for her soul instead of for superficial qualities: "I just want to be liked," she says. She doesn't care why or how. She, like so many of us, just wanted to be appreciated.
Mission accomplished, Joan.
Directed by Ricki Stern and Annie Sundberg, "Joan Rivers: A Piece of Work" is currently available to stream instantly on Netflix or rent on iTunes.