On Movies: What makes Rivers tick

Joan Rivers told the filmmakers: "If you're going to follow me around, then let's show certain things that show how tough life is. . . ."
Joan Rivers told the filmmakers: "If you're going to follow me around, then let's show certain things that show how tough life is. . . ."

A new documentary showcases her drive - and maternal instincts.

Posted: June 20, 2010

Like any good and caring mom, Joan Rivers is fiercely protective. So, when the seasoned comedian took her first look at the startlingly candid documentary that bears her name - Joan Rivers: A Piece of Work, just opened at the Ritz Five - her concerns weren't so much about how she comes off, but about how her daughter, Melissa, is captured on film.

And she said as much to the codirector, Ricki Stern.

"I told her that I thought that the first time you saw Melissa, she was saying something negative, and then the second time she's saying something positive," recalls Rivers. "So I asked her to switch that around, which she did. Because I just think that was silly."

There was another scene in which Melissa - Rivers' celebrity second banana for all those years the duo stalked the stars on awards-show red carpets - discussed the suicide of her father, and Rivers' husband, Edgar Rosenberg.

"The film had Melissa saying some things about me and Edgar's suicide that, unless you're a suicide survivor, it sounds very rough, because you're still angry 20 years later," Rivers says. (Rosenberg killed himself in 1987, in a hotel room in Philadelphia.)

"And so Melissa said, 'I would appreciate it,' and I said I'd appreciate it, too, if that was taken out, because you want it to be a wonderful documentary, but you also don't want to make it seem that we're walking around being miserable."

And anyway, it's not as if the suicide is glossed over in the film.

Hardly anything's glossed over.

As befits a comedy icon who, by her own description, is edgy and outrageous, A Piece of Work reveals just that: a piece of work. Here's this Jewish girl from Brooklyn, with her plastic surgeries and her potty mouth, her Versailles-in-Manhattan apartment and her relentless search for the next job, the next show, the next paycheck. The film, codirected by Annie Sundberg, follows Rivers around for a year, as she bad-mouths TV networks and industry execs, reveals her pet projects and pet peeves, her fears and her foibles, crisscrossing the country doing standup and hawking her eponymous wares on QVC ("God bless QVC!"). There are early-morning musings, sans makeup, and late-night flights, sans entourage, to Cleveland, or Miami, or who knows where.

"My friends say to me, 'How could you let them put that in?' and you go, 'Oh, please,' " Rivers says, on the phone from her daughter's home in Los Angeles. "I'm so used to it all. It's just stupid. I've been 40 years in the business, I've been maligned, everything's been done to me."

And what's the point, she says, of agreeing to participate in a documentary if you're going to keep up your guard, put on an act?

"How many stupid documentaries have you seen where you don't learn anything, and it's all about this person who is wonderful and here are nine celebrities to tell you that? If you want to see that, turn on the Biography Channel.

"And so I said, if you're going to follow me around, then let's show certain things that show how tough life is, let's show that you have to work hard to get what you want."

One of the things that Joan Rivers: A Piece of Work shows is just how driven the entertainer is, and how determined she is, after so many years in the business, to keep the bookings coming. On the phone with her manager and her agent, worrying aloud to her longtime personal assistant, Rivers pursues job opportunities from morning to night: corporate appearances, casino gigs, TV shows, an autobiographical theater piece (staged in Edinburgh and London), book signings, talk shows, and - ta-da - with Melissa, season two of Donald Trump's NBC series, Celebrity Apprentice.

One gets the sense that Rivers, now 77 (she was 75 when the film was made), is as ambitious as she was when she first started out, slinging one-liners in Greenwich Village cafes, writing gags for Candid Camera, guesting on Johnny Carson's Tonight Show.

"Maybe it's a good lesson for a lot of people in a very lazy society to know," she says. "It isn't all about waiting for the government to take care of you, or Daddy will take care of you, or if I sit back long enough it will happen to me because I have a college degree! . . .

"I learned a lot with How'd You Get So Rich?, my television show, where we go around and we find self-made millionaires and billionaires. Every one of them has a drive. . . . No one says 'Gee, it's 5 o'clock, I got to go now.' That was the one common thread through the two seasons so far that we've done. . . . And I was amazed, because I saw a lot of that in them, and a lot of them in me."

In the film, and on the phone, Rivers shrugs off the sexism she had to deal with early on and the ageism she has to deal with now. Well, she shrugs them off - and flips them off, too.

"It's only looking back that you realize, 'Oh, that's what that was about!' " she says, suggesting she was too busy working to worry about sexism, or glass ceilings.

"I never saw it, because I sat and waited to go onstage with George Carlin, Richard Pryor, and Bill Cosby and David Brenner - we were all sitting there together. I never realized I was the only girl."

And now, the age thing, does she realize that's an issue?

"Oh, every minute," she says, laughing. "I mean, I'm told over and over and over again, 'They don't like you on certain shows, you're too old, your demographics. . . .' And you keep saying 'I play colleges, and I play to young people, so what are you talking about?' But they don't want to hear it. So you just keep going. What's the alternative?

"They can just go f - themselves," she adds with characteristic delicacy. "It isn't going to change."

Indie film fest. The third annual Philadelphia Independent Film Festival starts Wednesday and runs through next Sunday, offering dozens of shorts and docs, features, music films, cult fare, and more. With five venues in Northern Liberties and the premiere of the Martin Sheen-narrated Return to El Salvador at the Ritz East, PIFF is designed to bring filmmakers and filmgoers together, exploring political, social, and artistic themes.

A few highlights: "The Making of an Anthem," a documentary short about Philly music impresario Kenny Gamble's "I Am an American" project featuring Patti LaBelle and the Temple University Symphony and Choir; For the Sake of the Song: The Story of Anderson Fair, about the storied Austin, Tex., music venue that nurtured budding singer/songwriters Lyle Lovett and Lucinda Williams; Auf Wiedersehen, 'Til We Meet Again, a personal, post-9/11 doc, and a mini-animation fest, featuring eight 'toon shorts.

For tickets, venue and schedule information, go to www.philadelphiaindependentfilmfestival.com or call 215-592-1242.

Contact movie critic Steven Rea at 215-854-5629 or srea@phillynews.com. Readhis blog, "On Movies Online," at http://www.philly.com/philly/blogs/ onmovies.

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