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06/18/2010

'Joan Rivers' peels away celebrity layers

"Oh, oh, can we talk?"

That Joan Rivers signature line never pops up in the soul-rattling documentary "Joan Rivers -- A Piece of Work."  Instead, we get the most obsessed, success-driven 76-year-old you'll likely ever meet with all pretense peeled away.

That, in itself, is astonishing news.  To many casual observers, Joan Rivers represents the exact opposite, a symbol of repeated plastic surgeries to hide, or at least fend off, the reality of aging.

Yet in front of the camera of directing and producing partners Ricki Stern and Annie Sundberg ("The Devil Came on Horseback," "The Trials of Darryl Hunt"), Rivers arrives and struggles to survive the treacherous, shark-infested show biz waters as an unabashed 76-year-old with more drive than most twentysomethings.

I'll reveal right up front that I arrived at the "Joan Rivers -- A Piece of Work" screening with high anticipation.  Not because I was primed for live performances and acerbic zingers from the "grand dame" of female comedians (Phyllis Diller might have something to say about that), but because it promised a rare behind-the-scenes look.

I was not disappointed.  Perhaps stunned a little, at times, but hardly left wanting for insight into Rivers in her 76th year.  That was 2009, a year when the couch potato public saw the determined show biz warrior survive even her own daughter Melissa to take the Season 2 winner's prize on Donald Trump's NBC reality  TV series "The Celebrity Apprentice."

The most revealing moments for me come when Rivers allows cameras into her opulent home.  She's in tears because her beloved dog has just died, or she reveals a mostly event-less performance calendar; a kiss of near-death for any performer.  Yet Rivers, a gifted comic who still longs to be taken seriously as an actress, is best summed up by a booking agent who gets to the pulsating heart of Rivers' drive:

"Joan Rivers will stand out in the rain longer than anyone else waiting for lightning to strike.  After everyone else has given up and gone inside, she's still out there in the rain.  Waiting."

That's the heart and soul of "Joan Rivers -- A Piece of Work," the most informatory backstage documentary I've ever had the pleasure of barely enduring.
 
"Comedian, the 2002 documentary with a self-absorbed title, chronicled Jerry Seinfeld’s return to stand-up comedy.  But it just scratched the surface of a comic’s self-doubt and anger compared to this.
 
Oh, oh, can we talk?

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