As celebrity documentaries go, the 2010 "biodoc," Joan Rivers: A Piece of Work, available for instant viewing on Netflix, is a mixed bag. It is neither reverential to the point of hagiography, nor is it a muckraking expose. What it is, is a measured look at a year in the life of a comedienne who has grown old in a world that belongs to the young, an elder stateswoman who refuses to "rust unburnished." It may be too late to seek a newer world, but at age seventy five (her age when the film was being shot) it is much too early to give up on the old one.
The Joan Rivers portrayed in the documentary directed by Ricki Stern and Annie Sundberg is a driven woman. Her career is her life. There isn't anything she is unwilling to do to keep that career alive because to keep that career alive is to keep herself alive. She will sell jewelry on the shopping channel. She will trot off to Edinburgh and London to play herself in a play she's written about her life. She will do radio interviews in the mornings, book signings in afternoons, and play casinos in the sticks and ratty comedy clubs in the evenings—and she will complain if her date book has blank pages. She will transform what should have been her wizened face into a youthful mask, knowing full well she is likely to become the go to face lift joke of every comedian du jour, but knowing just as well that the smooth face of youth is key to keeping her cherished career alive. Although, surprisingly, she does allow herself to be filmed sans makeup at the opening of the documentary, of course it is only in extreme close up of individual features, lips, an eye, but still without the make-up, not a pretty sight. The public eye has little interest in seeing wrinkled elders.
If one can question her priorities, it is difficult to question her energy as she trots around from limo to puddle jumper, from studio to rehearsal hall. And on stage she still has that energy in spades. In clips from her performances, she proves herself as raunchy and feisty as ever she was as a young woman, if not more so. After all, there is so much more you can get away with on stage today than there was back when she was making a name for herself on Johnny Carson's Tonight Show. So whether she is blowing her top and cursing at a heckler or making jokes about anal sex, she is clearly not going gentle anywhere, let alone into that good night.