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Joan Rivers: A Piece of Work (2010) -vs- The September Issue (2009)

Joan Rivers: A Piece of Work -vs- The September Issue

Sherry CobenThe Smackdown

Two women, both icons in their chosen professions and both considerably past the usual sell-by date, duke it out in the Smackdown ring. Driven and brilliant, one cuttingly funny, the other achingly serious, Joan Rivers and Anna Wintour show us how it’s done. Keeping a high profile career going for decades ain’t for sissies; it requires the kind of drive and single-mindedness few can sustain even for the length of a meteoric rise and the customary fade. These women are inspiring; role models and human Energizer bunnies, they make me feel like a slacker. Comedy and fashion may seem unimportant in the vast scheme of things, but these women are cottage industries. Their primal need to succeed feeds countless families, and we are lucky to behold them in their unlikely late primes, close-up, personal, and intimidating as hell.

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The Challenger

Joan Rivers has lived a long life full of public peaks and valleys characterized by a seemingly indomitable spirit that is more than matched with an undimmed, keen intelligence and canny rebound. This documentary follows this remarkable septuagenarian through a year of huge risks. It doesn’t even touch on her breakthrough QVC savvy or her single-handed revolutionizing of the celebrity fashion world; we see her stand-up, still remarkably raw and fearless and funny. We travel onstage with her; her non-stop schedule takes her to the most unfortunate dives in the remotest of towns and to huge venues more suitable to her stature. Through it all, she tells us everything and nothing; we learn much about her, but ultimately, the mystery of another person remains there just within and just beyond our grasp. We get hints as to what exactly makes this particular human dynamo tick so long and so loud, but like her very familiar and forever-morphing face, the secrets of her undeniable pain and struggle, while glaringly right there in front of us, remain hers. We want to reach out to her and thank her, to hug her, to provide her a moment’s peace, but alas…this life force goes it (unstoppably and perhaps unreachably) alone.

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The Defending Champion

Vogue’s editor-in-chief Anna Wintour was immortalized first on film by Meryl Streep in the vaguely fictionalized memoir “The Devil Wears Prada”; “The September Issue” features the real thing, unidealized, impeccably remote, powerful, perfect, and pristine. The documentary enthralls while it doesn’t quite enlighten in the traditional sense; we get glimpses of a guarded biography, but the real gold in full view is the dynamic relationship between Ms. Wintour and longtime creative director and collaborator Grace Coddington who deserves a documentary of her own. Their tension and struggle ignites and provides most of the human drama. Filmmaker R.J. Cutler exploits his unequaled access to the fullest extent, offering us a fascinating, occasionally funny, and intensely emotional ride as these and other equally formidable professionals create the monstrously influential 840-page, five-pound magazine.

The Scorecard

Whatever you feel about Joan Rivers going in, the documentary will offend you and amaze you. Funnier (and raunchier) onstage than television will ever allow, she’s still funny and fresh. At seventy- ive years old, she is a force of nature, struggling mightily to make her mark, to make us laugh, not to fade away into the darkness. Death is all around her, nipping now at her heels; her face now ravaged by countless plastic surgeries can seem a skeletal mask without its customary shellac. She flies all over the country (and the world) chasing her unnamed demons at full speed - Stillness? Poverty? Lack of control? Cultural irrelevance? Some essential unworthiness? Death itself? Motivated and unrelenting, unceasingly in the pursuit of another laugh, another booking, another triumph, another challenge, she courageously defies our expectations, refusing to accept any defeat. It’s a moving journey, and I suggest you go along with her for the ride.

Early in my career, I was privileged to meet Ms. Rivers, and she was kind and gracious to me. When I attempted to thank her for opening doors, she scoffed at my appreciation. She’s not doing it for us. Clearly. And she knew well what I did not — doors once opened don’t stay open, even for comedy institutions like her. A true pioneer, pathfinder, trailblazer, Rivers still finds (or expects) rejection and failure behind every corner. (Suicide is easy; life is hard.) In every walk of life, women struggle (usually harder than men), and the lesson is in every frame of the film. The world owes us nothing. We are only worth what we do with each moment; resting on any laurels would be a living death. Life is in the doing. Life is hard work.

Fashionistas probably don’t need any urging to see “The September Issue.” A rare inside look at a venerable institution, the unruffled elegance of Vogue’s pages never belie the struggle and sweat behind the scenes. Anna Wintour steps out into the light after two decades of hiding behind giant sunglasses and an inscrutably expressionless unreadable visage. Rumors have swirled around her as they do all powerful women, and perhaps this move to “open up” is a calculated one. Big dollars are at stake in the world of fashion and publishing, and the veneer of civility and calm barely masks the desperation as magazines face extinction, monthlies grow increasingly anachronistic, and the world teeters on the brink of a great depression. Famous faces (Vera Wang, Oscar De la Renta, John Galliano, Jean-Paul Gaultier, and many others) make appearances, courting Wintour’s approval and Vogue’s impossibly important imprimatur.

Like a cartoon character, I dress in a kind of uniform and am pretty much impervious to fashion. I have a closet full of black pants and thirty-plus years worth of (mostly black and mostly thrift-shop- found) tops. I have never subscribed to Vogue or any other fashion periodical devoted to making women feel the need to buy apparel and alter their appearance. An aging child of the sixties, I have studiously avoided salons and spas, elective surgery and mirror-gazing. Still, “The September Issue” intoxicated me.

Perhaps life really is as simple as both films would have us believe. Little girls with critical or distant or competitive parents need to prove themselves over and over; the gaping maw of early disapproval or careless disdain will not be filled. Those early wounds never heal. That primal pain stirs them to work hard, and we reap the benefits of all that overcompensation and effort.

The Decision

I am no Maynard G. Krebs; work thrills me and defines me and fulfills me. I enjoy nothing on earth more than feeling tapped. I have known people who buy a package of razor blades at the corner drug emporium and come home to reward themselves with a nap, crossing the completed errand off their to-do list and celebrating their dubious achievement. Life is too short not to live fully. There’s plenty of time to rest when it’s all over.

Both documentaries celebrate impossibly hard work and both are well worth your time, but “Joan Rivers: A Piece of Work” will probably stay with you longer. She’s a treasure, and filmmakers Ricki Stern and Anne Sundberg have honored her with honesty and great care.

About Sherry Coben 77 Articles
A comedy writer who created the 1980s hit show Kate & Allie, Sherry Coben — tired of malingering in development hell — has enjoyed coaching a high school ComedySportz team in SoCal, making a no-budget, high-ambition webisode series, and biting the hand that feeds her.

3 Comments on Joan Rivers: A Piece of Work (2010) -vs- The September Issue (2009)

  1. When I saw her documentary, I wasn’t expecting to be affected as strongly as I was. It was really very touching, she has had some hard times in her life, and still manages to show up everyday and give it her all. I really respect her for that

  2. FYI: “The September Issue” is already available on Netflix and Netflix Instant. Just in case I’ve piqued your interest…

  3. Interesting. Some of your reviews are hysterical. You jab at writers and actors and directors, keeping them off balance for the knockout punch. And some of your reviews are serious essays. This one, of course, is the latter. I saw the Joan Rivers film and as funny as she is, the strange mix of darkness and laughter haunted me. I didn’t sit down to try to figure out why, but apparently you did. Thanks for the insights. Good job.

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