Funny Lady Weeping

An engaging doc captures Joan Rivers' restless spirit

Joan Rivers: A Piece of Work ***

Opens Friday at the Cedar Lee Theatre and at the Capitol Theatre

Joan Rivers — A Piece of Work, Ricki Stern and Annie Sundberg's warts-and-all documentary about the foul-mouthed 77-year-old stand-up comic, opens with a montage of clips from yesteryear. Johnny Carson tells her that one day she'll be a "big star," and headlines proclaim she has paved the way for female comedians everywhere.

Flash forward to the present day, and things aren't so glamorous. The filmmakers follow Rivers as she makes her way into a comedy club through the back door, virtually crawling through an old, half-painted staircase. "This is my career," jokes Rivers when she finally gets onto the ratty stage of the Queens, New York club. "Forty years in the business and this is where I end up!"

Rivers admits that because she leads an extravagant lifestyle (her posh Manhattan flat is fit for a queen) and has numerous bills to pay, she can't stop working. So in an attempt at reinvention, she produces an autobiographical play about her career. While its London debut gets generally positive reviews, it stalls out short of Broadway, sending Rivers into a virtual tailspin and making her so desperate that she's willing to take a gig on Celebrity Apprentice. The bulk of the film, however, provides plenty of vivid, behind-the-scenes moments.

Daughter Melissa Rivers reminds Mom that her motto was "be supportive but not encouraging," and Rivers counters that she was simply trying to protect her daughter. "This is the worst business in the world," says Rivers. "In this business, you're mud your whole life." Rivers also recounts the death of her husband/manager, Edgar Rosenberg, who killed himself in 1987, and she tears up as she talks about having to fire her last manager, Billy Sammeth. But she doesn't give up, something the filmmakers capture quite nicely in this fascinating film.

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Joan Rivers — A Piece of Work

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