'Joan Rivers: A Piece of Work' documentary stands as trenchant tribute

The 2010 documentary 'Joan Rivers: A Piece of Work' offers an incisive portrait of the late comic legend

Joan Rivers never stopped performing. The comedian, talk-show host and red-carpet critic, who died Wednesday at 81, was a tireless showbiz pro to the very end.

Although she often mined her own life to provide material for her brassy brand of comedy, Rivers' always-on public persona also served as a sort of mask that rarely slipped -- until filmmakers Ricki Stern and Annie Sundberg made the revealing 2010 documentary "Joan Rivers: A Piece of Work," which now stands as an incisive tribute to the late comic legend. (Watch the trailer above.)

Shot over 14 months, "A Piece of Work" is full of unvarnished glimpses of Rivers -- indeed, it opens with a series of close-ups of her face without makeup -- as she performs countless stand-up dates in venues big and small, flogs two books and a line of costume jewelry, stages a play in Britain and films a reality TV show, all while reflecting on what drives her after so many decades.

A portrait emerges of an entertainer who can't imagine slowing down, much less stopping, and who dreads fading into irrelevance. At one point she says, "I'll show you fear," and she gestures to an empty datebook: "That's fear."

For someone known for her caustic wit, Rivers also shows startling vulnerability. In one scene, she expresses frustration over not being recognized for her acting talent. "My career is an actress' career," she says. "And I play a comedian."

"A Piece of Work" garnered excellent reviews after premiering at the Sundance Film Festival, where it also won an editing award. Along with Rivers' concurrent triumph on NBC's "Celebrity Apprentice," the documentary marked yet another comeback in a career already full of them (not that Rivers rested any easier afterward).

Co-directors Stern and Sundberg declined to speak to The Times about Rivers after her death, but in 2010, Stern discussed what drew her to Rivers as a subject.

"I was intrigued by her life as a performer, this person who just works hard for the sake of working hard and doing the best for the sake of the audience," Stern told The Times. "It's always about the audience, putting on a good show, being up for the 5 a.m. interview. ... It's the way she is."

Times staff writer Amy Kaufman contributed to this report.

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