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A Face Worth Watching

As most television-watching Americans know, Joan Rivers’s face is a canvas that has been worked and reworked by makeup artists and plastic surgeons alike. But her new film, which is currently screening at New York’s Tribeca Film Festival, delves beneath appearances and into the vulnerability of a 76-year-old Jewish funny girl who still gets her feelings hurt.

“Joan Rivers — A Piece of Work” is an up-close-and-personal look at the comedian — just how up close is readily evident from the very first frame. The viewer is treated to a glimpse of parts of Rivers’s face just before it is made up. The close-up reveals (gasp!) wrinkles and flaws. Such a view of Ms. Rivers constitutes a vision as unusual as a UFO sighting anywhere outside the American Midwest.

The film depicts a year in the life of Rivers as she struggles to find work and approval from a public that has gone on to the “next big thing.” The film, like Rivers, can be bawdily funny. Her most humorous moments are jokes that cannot be published in this newspaper. But the film’s strength lies in its delicate balancing act between humor and poignant candidness.

“This is my fear,” Rivers says, flipping through an empty appointment book. The film intersperses clips of her glory days on “The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson,” her youthful face infinitely more innocent than her current one. Her life now is lived in a Versailles-like apartment, and she struggles for opportunities to work. She sits at a desk abutting her alphabetical joke-filled filing cabinets, with labels like “New York — No Self-Worth” and “Cooking — Tony Danza.”

“I just want to be loved,” Rivers says at one point. The film is brutally honest about everything — from how Rivers deliberately plays up her Judaism for Borscht Belt-y laughs to how her many cosmetic surgeries have made her a parody of herself — yet it treats her with compassion. And in that honesty there is both comedy and bravery.

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