So I went to Sundance to cover some DC-based documentaries and assumed I'd just zero in on the searing crush of self-involved LA people there for this blog on fame but instead found myself watching "Joan Rivers - A Piece of Work" for my eureka moment.
It's an extraordinary documentary - a year in the life of the 76 year old comedienne that reveals a relentless drive to perform, to connect with audiences, to be appreciated as a real actress and to be wanted and loved. But not famous, I don't think. That's the weird part.
"Fame is a by-product of the ability to do this thing, which is the performing," says co-director Anne Sundberg, "It goes hand in hand, the more famous she is, the more in demand - she just sees it that way."
It's a searing portrait of what drives this show business victim/veteran - she just has to be out there. Rivers is amazingly honest and her willingness to bear all - her husband Edgar's suicide, Johnny Carson's abrupt and final shunning of her after she left the Tonight Show, her complicated relationship with daughter Melissa, her insecurity about her looks and surprising sensitivity to her countless plastic surgeries - makes the audience root for her over and over again. Like Debbie Reynolds and Barbara Walters, Rivers represents a fading generation of troopers with a work ethic that just won't quit.
A true highlight is a montage of several sweaty standup routines at New York comedy clubs - and when I say she KILLS it's an understatement and a metaphor maybe for her searing talent. She is so funny it hurts. And that's the key - Joan Rivers is famous because she's an amazing performer - her act IS her life - and only when she thinks she's unwanted and without an audience she becomes fragile, needy and alone. When she fights back she soars. Face it, none of this would matter if she wasn't so incredibly funny.
And while we all know comedy can come from a place of hurt and anger plus the fact there's an enormous amount of sexual hostility in River's act the shock is that behind the scenes we also discover an amazingly kind, thoughtful, and gracious woman. At one point we see her gently stroking her grandson's palm. "I love your hands," she says.
Rivers showed up for this and every showing of the film at Sundance in full makeup and costume and during audience Q & A the queries were all fan-based love. A piece of work indeed.
"I think she's the anti-celebrity celebrity," says co-director Ricki Stern, "She's the one who says the emperor has no clothes when she stands on the red carpet and calls people out for their absurdity...she really is a truth-teller and that's why people respond to her."
But then J.D. Salinger died and the anvil-like irony put the two together : polar - no, extra-terrestrially polar opposites - one needing the adoration and connection with the public to be who she is, the other so horrified by it that the remainder of his manuscripts remained in a drawer. But connected they are, I think. Both so very gifted but one relying on the attention of strangers, the other stricken by the very thought of it.
Fame changes people - duh -but only a very few, and in my theory, extraordinary - can handle it. For all her very obvious flaws, Joan Rivers handles it.
That's what she said.
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