THE AMERICAN stand-up comedienne, actress, and TV personality Joan Rivers has been an unrivalled force in the entertainment industry for more than five decades.
Rivers was born Joan Molinsky in Brooklyn, New York, in 1933 to Russian-Jewish immigrant parents. Through sheer persistence and a razor-sharp wit she carved out a niche for herself on the Greenwich Village comedy/cabaret scene. By the early 1970s she had her own syndicated daytime TV talk/comedy show, called That Show with Joan Rivers.
The outspoken comedienne typifies the loud, brash, irreverent, and uncompromising style of New York stand-up comedy that was first championed by Lenny Bruce, Jackie Mason, and other trailblazers in the 1950s and 1960s.
Rivers is also acknowledged as the poster girl for plastic surgery. She wrote a best-selling book, Men Are Stupid and They Like Big Boobs – A Woman’s Guide to Beauty Through Plastic Surgery, on the subject.
During 2008, filmmakers Ricki Stern and Annie Sundberg documented the ups and downs of Joan’s life and career over a 12 month period. The result is a brutally honest and outrageously funny film, Joan Rivers: A Piece of Work.
The film will be screened at the Town Hall Theatre tonight at 9pm as part of the Galway Film Fleadh
It was through family connections that Stern first came into contact with Joan and the woman she encountered in private was very different from her public persona.
“My parents were friendly with her for about four years but I actually didn’t know her all that well,” Stern tells me. “It wasn’t like I grew up knowing her and had an intense relationship with her.
“I had met her a few times in the company of parents and I found her very down-to-earth. That’s probably a funny thing to say about Joan Rivers considering she is such a personality. I found her very engaging and I think the reason why she has been so successful for so long is that she’s genuinely interested in other people. I felt it was important to tell her story.”
When Stern first mooted the idea of doing an in-depth documentary on Rivers it was greeted with enthusiasm by the comedienne. It came at a turning point in her life.
“I called Joan and spoke to her briefly about the project and she was very forthcoming in her response to it,” Stern says. “It was right around the time that she was turning 75 and she was talking about it being at a time in her life when she’d nothing to lose.
“She hadn’t, for a long time, been very open about her age but suddenly she had a sort of epiphany and figured that she’d done a lot in her life that she wanted to talk about.
“For Joan it was very important for the film to tell the story of an ageing person and what they’re up against. Especially I suppose in Joan’s profession where there’s a price for beauty and youth and it’s at a premium. The universal message of the documentary is what women, and also men, go through as they age.”
The director has admitted that she did not really understand the appeal of Joan and her humour until she went to see a live show.
“I’d thought of her, not really fully knowing her act, as sort of a throwback to the 1960s cabaret thing and hadn’t figured how spot on and funny she is,” Stern admits. “We first went to see her in New York in a little club and she was just so raw and fresh and contemporary and amazing.
“She used to do a formalised act but then in recent years she realised that she could incorporate herself and her life into her work. That’s really what her comedy now is: the truth of her life.”
One very important truth that comes through in the documentary is Joan’s role as a compassionate and caring mother and grandmother.
“I think Joan is extremely conscious of how it is for Melissa being the daughter of someone who is so well known,” Stern states .“When you talk to Melissa it’s not really an issue because it’s all she’s ever known.
“Joan is quite sensitive to it and would hate for people to judge Melissa because of her. She is a very caring mother and also has an amazingly close relationship with her grandson. He’s there in the film and he’s a lovely, charming boy and Joan, in some ways, wishes he was more in the film.”
Joan Rivers: A Piece of Work premiered at the Sundance Film Festival earlier this year and won the award for Documentary Film Editing. Stern is happy to now bring her latest work to Ireland and is sure that Rivers would also be pleased.
“I’m excited to show it,” Stern enthuses .“Joan has always had a very loyal audience in the UK and Ireland. She has said that the audiences there are very upfront and non-judgmental, unlike some commentators in the States. It’s very hard to distil somebody’s life down to 84 minutes. Hopefully there’s something there for everybody.”
Tickets are available from the Town Hall on 091 - 569777 and www.tht.ie