Rivers: Love the Jewelry, Luv the Lady

Rivers: Love the Jewelry, Luv the Lady

One of the hottest tickets at the 2010 Sundance Film Festival was the documentary, “Joan Rivers: A Piece of Work,” directed by Ricki Stern and Annie Sundberg. The documentary, which follows Ms. Rivers, 76, for 14 months was not only entertaining, but it was followed by a Q&A session with Joan Rivers, which was akin to seeing a bonus stand-up nightclub act.

Rivers answered questions on topics from the film, to Conan O’Brien, and from politics and parenting to the current television season. Given Sundance’s reputation for dark and brooding topics, Rivers quipped that, “This film was the only Sundance documentary where people will come out smiling.”

The film premiered at Park City’s Temple Theater, which, when the Sundance Film Festival is not in town, is also known as Temple Har Shalom, the town‘s synagogue. At her red carpet (it was more grayish) pre-premiere photo opportunity, which was held 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.”

Rickie Stern and Annie Sundberg came to this film project after completing award winning, character driven narrative documentaries on Africa, “The Devil Came on Horseback,” and on murder, “The Trials of Darryl Hunt.” Heavy topics. But after these films on Darfur and Death, they were ready to create a lighter, film on a third “D:“ a Diva.

The film exposes Rivers’ private dramas, her ups and downs, her brash (obscene) comedy, her fight to keep her career going, and her frank discussions with her daughter, Melissa> It peels away the facade of a comedy icon. Of course, Rivers does not want to be an icon, she just wants to work and work and be respected as number one. On the topic of peeling, the film opens with a close-up of Rivers applying her makeup. From the first minute, the audience knows that nothing will be hidden.

The child of a Russian-born, Jewish parents, Rivers grew up in an upper middle class, Westchester, NY household, and knew from Pre-Kindergarten that she wanted to be an actress. A graduate of Barnard College, her career has included Tony and Emmy nominations, a successful jewelry business, and reaching the pinnacle guest hosting the NBC Tonight Show, but it also included the suicide of her husband, discovering that her business partner was ripping her off, and the alleged boycott by NBC’s late night talk shows.

One would think that after her long successful career, she would just be playing Las Vegas and large club dates. Instead, the film shows her planning a cruise ship performance and traveling to the rural Northern Wisconsin to play a casino date. Always the Jewish mother, she traveled with her own Lysol disinfectant and re-cleans the venue’s bathroom. Like a funny, down-to-earth neighbor, Rivers chatted with me about the new Jewish films and the New York Jewish Film Festival after one Sundance screening.

Why agree to such an honest film portrayal? Rivers replied that she likes the truth and wanted her year documented by filmmakers that she trusts. The film shows her to be obsessively driven, blunt, edgy, definitely relevant, and a maniac about working. To Rivers, her work is her hobby, her passion, and the source of her enjoyment. Can she ever be happy? Rivers said, “The job of the comedian is to show that the emperor is not wearing clothes. The minute you are happy, you aren’t funny.” This film shows that her pain is our fascinating pleasure.

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