Copyright ©2010 NPR. For personal, noncommercial use only. See Terms of Use. For other uses, prior permission required.

: 21 by our count, eight this month alone. Among them, "Joan Rivers: A Piece of Work."

Bob Mondello has our review.

BOB MONDELLO: The film opens with a lingering shot you probably don't expect: An enormous, full-screen close-up of Joan Rivers without makeup. Veins spidery, skin blotchy, upper lip frozen, eyebrows so thin you can count every hair. It's a declaration of intent that this picture will not just be about surfaces.

Then she slathers on foundation, lipstick, mascara thick as paste, and younger images start appearing as shadows, along with voices from her past.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "JOAN RIVERS: A PIECE OF WORK")

: Would you welcome Miss Joan Rivers.

(SOUNDBITE OF CHEERING AND APPLAUSE)

: You know, you're going to be a big star.

: Well, here's my daffy little friend, Joan Rivers.

(SOUNDBITE OF A SCREAM)

MONDELLO: By the end of the accolades, she's fully made up - the Joan Rivers we know - ready to talk trash but first having to wade through trash, down stairwells piled high with junk, to backstage hallways with peeling paint, onto a tiny, dilapidated stage.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "JOAN RIVERS: A PIECE OF WORK")

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

: This is my career. I mean, how depressing is this? Forty years in the (BEEP) business, and this is where you end up.

MONDELLO: At 77, Rivers doesn't play Vegas as often as she once did, but there's still a Joan Rivers industry headquartered in her wildly baroque Manhattan apartment: gold, white, pink. This, she says, is how Marie Antoinette would have lived if she'd had money.

In her office is a sort of joke museum, a wall of alphabetized card- catalog drawers stuffed with 3-by-5 cards, each one typed neatly with a gag she's delivered, often to outrage - especially back in the days when female comics were expected to be demure.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "JOAN RIVERS: A PIECE OF WORK")

: You want to know the truth? You know how lousy you feel? At night, when I'm undressed, my husband looks at me and mentally dresses me.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

: When I started comedy, I was very wild for the time, but different times. The last line of my original act was: This business - it's all about casting couches. So I just want you to know, my name is Joan Rivers, and I put out.

: That's disgusting. So for my time, I was very shocking.

MONDELLO: Shocking played well as late-night fare, of course, and for a time, Joan was the late-night queen, anointed by the king himself.

(SOUNDBITE OF TELEVISION PROGRAM, "THE TONIGHT SHOW")

: Don't you think men really like intelligence more when it comes right down to it?

: Oh, please, are we going to go back to that? Are you kidding?

: Sure. I mean, it's a brain, you know, a caring person.

: No man has ever put his hand up a woman's dress looking for a library card.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

MONDELLO: Rivers became Johnny Carson's designated replacement host. But when she took a late-night gig on a rival network, Carson never spoke to her again. Her show was a flop, her husband felt responsible and committed suicide, and her struggle to rebuild took decades.

As the film repeatedly makes clear, comedy is a high-wire act where you're forever in danger of crashing.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "JOAN RIVERS: A PIECE OF WORK")

: Oh, I hate show business. Eww. The only child that I think I would've liked ever was Helen Keller because she didn't talk, and it's just...

U: Not very funny.

: Yes, it is. And if you don't - then leave!

U: It isn't funny if you have a deaf son.

: I happen to have a deaf mother. Oh, you stupid (BEEP). Let me tell you what comedy is...

MONDELLO: How she gets the audience laughing again, I'll leave you to discover for yourself. Suffice it to say she doesn't get any less abrasive or less self-absorbed. But as the film demonstrates, there is more to this particular hard-charging, egomaniacal, joke machine than gets revealed onstage.

P: A Piece of Work." I'm Bob Mondello.

Copyright © 2010 NPR. All rights reserved. No quotes from the materials contained herein may be used in any media without attribution to NPR. This transcript is provided for personal, noncommercial use only, pursuant to our Terms of Use. Any other use requires NPR's prior permission. Visit our permissions page for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by a contractor for NPR, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of NPR's programming is the audio.

Comments

 

Please keep your community civil. All comments must follow the NPR.org Community rules and Terms of Use. NPR reserves the right to use the comments we receive, in whole or in part, and to use the commenter's name and location, in any medium. See also the Terms of Use, Privacy Policy and Community FAQ.