A fine documentary about a living legend

By Owen Gleiberman
June 17, 2010 at 04:00 AM EDT

Here are a few of the fascinating things you learn about Joan Rivers in the rip-roaring documentary Joan Rivers: A Piece of Work. At 75, she works constantly, taking any gig that?s offered—it doesn?t matter if it?s in a Laundromat in Queens, if they?re paying, she?ll go. When you get inside her apartment, it?s shockingly ornate, with the gilded walls and royal-court furniture of an Upper East Side Versailles. Back in 1986, after spending years as Johnny Carson?s guest host on The Tonight Show, she was offered her own late-night show by Fox—and, out of loyalty (because Joan is very loyal), the first person she told was Carson. His response? He slammed the phone down and never spoke to her again for the rest of his life.

When Rivers, with her tirelessly blaring, paint-scrape voice, tells an anecdote like that one, she does it with a merciless appreciation for the comedy of her own misfortune. Yet there?s never a hint of self-pity; her ruthless mockingbird personality wouldn?t allow it.

A Piece of Work opens with extreme close-ups of Rivers? surgically enhanced, bruised-china-doll face minus its traditional coat of cosmetic varnish. It then follows Rivers as she riffs, performs, worries, complains, and preps her act with an index-card readiness that belies its Jewish-firecracker spontaneity. She?s a teller of hilarious gutbucket truths as surely as Lenny Bruce and Richard Pryor ever were. Yet while they were consumed by their demons, Rivers is just the opposite. Letting her demons run wild is what saves her, every day. A