Image - Ricki Stern, Joan Rivers and Annie Sundberg
There is no way Joan Rivers is going to go gentle into that good night. The 77 year old has way too much energy, tussle, and, yes, rage for that. Bringing the reigning queen of comedy to the big screen in Joan Rivers: A Piece of Work, documentary filmmaker Ricki Stern was rather surprised to find that, much like her subject, she too had to put up quite a fight. After making documentaries about a man’s wrongful incarceration (The Trials of Darryl Hunt) and the horrific realities of Darfur (The Devil Came on Horseback), Stern was well aware that this film would be a change of gear (“As I say, Darfur to diva”), but did not expect the pushback from her colleagues.
“When I went out to make this film about Joan Rivers, there was a lot of [sarcastic tone], ‘Well, that’s an interesting departure for you!’ and ‘Good luck to ya!’,” she says. “In the long run I realised I was really angry that people in the business who I counted on were so sceptical. It was a bit of a struggle to make [the film]. In many ways I experienced a fraction of what Joan experiences in pursuing her own career, because she’s constantly challenged [and] you’re constantly challenged by: ‘How relevant are you? What’s your demographic?’.”
Rising to the challenge, just like Rivers, Stern seems ultimately invigorated by the uphill battle and ‘lean’ production. “You’re constantly going ‘Oh woe is me’ maybe, but in the end, I just feel like what I see from my filmmaking peers, there’s always a certain level that’s deeper and more meaningful when they’ve had to struggle to tell their story.”
So what’s meaningful about Joan Rivers? Predominantly (in)famous for her plastic surgery and red carpet antics, Stern felt it imperative to dig a little deeper. “I really wanted to create early on the film a foundation for her legacy. My concern was that people would go, ‘oh there’s that lady Joan Rivers. She’s that lady on the red carpet,’ and then not value what her history is. So very early on I was like, ‘we’ve got to quickly establish, even in the opening sequence, that she’s a legitimate person that you’ve got to pay attention to.’
The result is a delicately balanced portrait of the comedienne, which intercuts the indefatigable septuagenarian with archival footage of her heyday on The Johnny Carson Show, and the failed solo show that lead to her producer-husband’s suicide. It’s an enlightening, poignant combination.
“I think exposing someone for who they are and really revealing someone who is an interesting, influential person, who is so misunderstood in some regards, is [an] interesting process, and if you can do that, I think people will be genuinely interested and taken by it.”
Indeed, for all naysayers, it turns out both Stern and Rivers have found their audience. “It was [for] the people who thought of [Rivers] as a joke, because they had this perception of this public persona that she had created and had morphed into. This commercialised version of who she was. Once they understood that this is something she created and is something she’s in control of, I think she regained a certain level of respect.”
Street Press Australia
Joan Rivers: A Piece of Work is currently screening at ACMI