Joan Rivers at Tribeca: 'I Was Never the Pretty One'

Maybe it was the rain. On a night when the Tribeca Film Festival's packed hometown premiere of the documentary Joan Rivers: A Piece of Work glowed with the promise of its post-screening conversation between Rivers and her catty confidante Rex Reed, the atmosphere was overtaken by a more subdued, contemplative mood between the pair. At least until the point when Rivers called out that 88-year-old "bitch" Betty White.

Give the documentary -- and its co-directors Ricki Stern and Annie Sundberg -- some credit as well: Subtitled "A Year in the Life of a Semi-Legend," their film tracks the existential peaks and valleys of the 75-year-old workaholic comedienne. To the extent you'll laugh, Piece of Work's catalog of unfulfilled expectations (trying and failing to return to Broadway with her recent one-woman show), bitter disappointments (her husband's suicide, culture's lack of regard for her as an actress), and neverending career anguish (being the target of a Comedy Central roast makes her miserable no matter much they pay her) sends viewers away with the same coppery, nihilistic aftertaste detectable in previous Stern/Sundberg subjects from Darfur to the death penalty. Just as there's no arguing against Rivers's comic genius, there's no arguing against its costs.

In that sense, Piece of Work exquisitely reflects Rivers's range. But kicking off the conversation afterward, Reed seemed to suggest the film was a kind of primer for the casual fan as opposed to the more valedictory effort expected from his good friend of nearly 40 years.

"One thing that you don't know completely from this movie," Reed said, "is that this women is one of the truly nicest people I've ever known. She has the biggest heart of anybody I've ever known. She's a wonderful hostess. She has the greatest taste in the world -- furniture, friends. That doesn't always come out in this movie, but I have to tell you: That is the Joan Rivers I know."

Stern and Sundberg set that more nuanced tone from their opening sequence, featuring extreme close-ups of Rivers's surgically altered face receiving its early-morning cosmetic applications. ("There goes my chance at a fourth marriage," Rivers joked in response.) Don't think Reed didn't notice.

"I found it a little bit sad, though," he noted, "when you said, 'The first thing I do in the morning is put on my makeup.'"

"Yeah." Rivers nodded her intent, customary nod.

"And I thought about it, and you know--"

"You were handsome, Rex, so you don't know what you're talking about," Rivers said, touching his arm. "You were a movie star. You're a handsome man now." Rivers turned to her hushed audence. "He was glorious," she continued, waving her hand in front of her as if to physically draw out each word. "He was a movie star!" She face Reed again. "You don't know what it's like not to be an attractive person, so you cannot go into those areas."

"You were attractive!" Reed replied. "You had big hair, but you were attractive."

"Well, that was the '80s," Rivers said, shrugging. "But I was never the pretty one. Never the pretty one."

"That doesn't mean that you have to work harder."

"Well, that's why I work harder -- to make myself feel better," Rivers said. "I don't want to look in the mirror and go, 'Ugh.' The eyelashes help."

"I was thinking, though, as many times as I've been to your house for dinner, and you are relaxed, and you're not in spangles or anything -- but you've always got the face on."

"Yeah," she replied. "I swim like that. I can dive and my head doesn't go underwater."

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  • happygolucky says:

    Rex looks great!

  • everydayslikechristmas says:

    Joan Rivers is such a champ, she can take a hundred punches, and she only needs one to knock you out. Tough old broads ftw. Has anyone found out anything about her documentary coming out this year?

  • lilred26 says:

    Ya I saw Joan Rivers on Good Morning America this morning and her new doc Joan Rivers A Piece of Work looks hysterical! And who knew her bday was tomorrow, June 8th? Well here’s a happy early bday joan, can’t wait till your doc hits this Friday!

  • Movie Man says:

    She may be thought of as a red carpet commentator, but she is so much more than that. I really have a new respect for her now. Definitely recommend seeing her documentary.