Maybe it is the recession, or the new focus on Sundance’s rebellious roots, but there is a distinctive lack of popular swag in Park City in 2010. But who needs a pair of boots, apparel, or trinkets, when a truly fabulous gem is in town: Joan Rivers.
One of the hottest tickets at the festival is the documentary, “Joan Rivers: A Piece of Work,” directed by Ricki Stern and Annie Sundberg, which follows the indomitable Ms. Rivers throughout one full year of her life: her 76th.
The film premiered at Sundance’s “Temple Theater,” which, when the Sundance Film Festival is not in town, is also known as the (Jewish) Temple Har Shalom. At her red carpet (Rivers commented that it was more “grayish”) photo opportunity, in the synagogue’s second floor library, Rivers quipped, “My film is premiering here in a synagogue. Six members of my family are downstairs praying for it right now.”
Stern and Sundberg came to project after completing award-winning, character-driven narrative documentaries on Africa (“The Devil Came on Horseback,”) and murder (“The Trials of Darryl Hunt”). Heavy topics. But after films on Death and Darfur, they were ready to create a lighter doc featuring a different kind of “D’: a “Diva.” Stern’s mother is a long time-friend of Rivers’, so when the filmmakers approached the comic about a documentary, she did not hesitate to commit.
The movie follows Rivers for a full 14 months, exposing her private dramas, her ups and downs, her brash comedy, her fight to keep her career going, her frank discussions with her daughter (watch for her new series, “Mother Knows Best”), while peeling away the facade of a comedy icon. Of course, Rivers does not want to be an icon, she just wants to work and be number one. Speaking of peeling, the film opens with a close-up of Rivers applying her makeup. From the very first second, the audience knows that nothing will be hidden.
The child of Russian-born, Jewish parents, Rivers grew up in an upper-middle-class, Westchester, NY household, and knew before Kindergarten that she wanted to be an actress. After graduating from Barnard College, she went on to a career that has included Tony and Emmy nominations, her Tonight Show pinnacle, but also the suicide of her husband, a fraudulent business partner, and an alleged boycott by NBC late night talk shows. Rivers has had to reinvent herself more times than Madonna.
One would think that after her lengthy career, Rivers would only play Vegas or larger clubs. Instead, the film shows her planning a cruise ship performance and traveling to rural northern Wisconsin to play a casino gig. Actually, the northern Wisconsin date was almost not filmed, as it was a quick trip and required three flights to get to the venue. But the documentary’s directors decided to send one cameraman with Rivers, which elicited three of the best scenes in the movie. Always the Jewish mother, Rivers traveled with her own Lysol disinfectant and re-cleans the venue’s bathroom. When a heckler interrupts one of her shows – which she says happens only once every six years—Rivers demonstrates how a master performer regains the audience’s love and her own comic timing.
Why agree to such an honest film? In an interview, Rivers replied that she likes the truth and wanted her year documented by filmmakers she trusts. The movie shows her to be obsessively driven, blunt, edgy, and still incredibly relevant to the comedy field at 76. She works 18-hour days, 7 days a week from her Manhattan apartment, which resembles a wing of the palace Versaille.
One performance a day is too few for Rivers; the entire day needs to be filled. If there is too much white space in her calendar, she said, she is blinded by the whiteness. To Rivers, her work is her hobby, her passion, and the source of her enjoyment. Can she ever be happy? “The job of the comedian is to show that the emperor is not wearing clothes,” she said. “ The minute you are happy, you aren’t funny.”