Two women, both icons in their chosenÂ professions and both considerably past the usual sell-by date, duke it out inÂ the Smackdown ring. Driven and brilliant, one cuttingly funny, the otherÂ achingly serious, Joan Rivers and Anna Wintour show us how it’s done. Keeping aÂ high profile career going for decades ain’t for sissies; it requires the kindÂ of drive and single-mindedness few can sustain even for the length of a meteoricÂ rise and the customary fade. These women are inspiring; role models and humanÂ Energizer bunnies, they make me feel like a slacker. Comedy and fashion mayÂ seem unimportant in the vast scheme of things, but these women are cottageÂ industries. Their primal need to succeed feeds countless families, and we are lucky toÂ behold them in their unlikely late primes, close-up, personal, and intimidatingÂ as hell.
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Joan Rivers has lived a long life full ofÂ public peaks and valleys characterized by a seemingly indomitable spirit thatÂ is more than matched with an undimmed, keen intelligence and canny rebound.Â This documentary follows this remarkable septuagenarian through a year of hugeÂ risks. It doesn’t even touch on her breakthrough QVC savvy or her single-handedÂ revolutionizing of the celebrity fashion world; we see her stand-up, stillÂ remarkably raw and fearless and funny. We travel onstage with her; her non-stopÂ schedule takes her to the most unfortunate dives in the remotest of towns andÂ to huge venues more suitable to her stature. Through it all, she tells usÂ everything and nothing; we learn much about her, but ultimately, the mystery ofÂ another person remains there just within and just beyond our grasp. We getÂ hints as to what exactly makes this particular human dynamo tick so long and soÂ loud, but like her very familiar and forever-morphing face, the secrets of herÂ undeniable pain and struggle, while glaringly right there in front of us,Â remain hers. We want to reach out to her and thank her, to hug her, to provideÂ her a moment’s peace, but alas…this life force goes it (unstoppably andÂ perhaps unreachably) alone.
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The Defending Champion
Vogue’s editor-in-chief AnnaÂ Wintour was immortalized first on film by Meryl Streep in the vaguelyÂ fictionalized memoir “The Devil Wears Prada”; “The SeptemberÂ Issue” features the real thing, unidealized, impeccablyÂ remote, powerful, perfect, and pristine. The documentary enthralls while itÂ doesn’t quite enlighten in the traditional sense; we get glimpses of a guardedÂ biography, but the real gold in full view is the dynamic relationship betweenÂ Ms. Wintour and longtime creative director and collaborator Grace Coddington whoÂ deserves a documentary of her own. Their tension and struggle ignites andÂ provides most of the human drama. Filmmaker R.J. Cutler exploits his unequaledÂ access to the fullest extent, offering us a fascinating, occasionally funny,Â and intensely emotional ride as these and other equally formidable professionals create the monstrously influential 840-page, five-pound magazine.
Whatever you feel about Joan Rivers goingÂ in, the documentary will offend you and amaze you. Funnier (and raunchier)Â onstage than television will ever allow, she’s still funny and fresh. AtÂ seventy- ive years old, she is a force of nature, struggling mightily to makeÂ her mark, to make us laugh, not to fade away into the darkness. Death is allÂ around her, nipping now at her heels; her face now ravaged by countless plasticÂ surgeries can seem a skeletal mask without its customary shellac. She flies allÂ over the country (and the world) chasing her unnamed demons at full speed -Â Stillness? Poverty? Lack of control? Cultural irrelevance? Some essentialÂ unworthiness? Death itself? Motivated and unrelenting, unceasingly in theÂ pursuit of another laugh, another booking, another triumph, another challenge,Â she courageously defies our expectations, refusing to accept any defeat. It’s aÂ moving journey, and I suggest you go along with her for the ride.
Early in my career, I was privileged to meet Ms. Rivers,Â and she was kind and gracious to me. When I attempted to thank her for openingÂ doors, she scoffed at my appreciation. She’s not doing it for us. Clearly. AndÂ she knew well what I did not — doors once opened don’t stay open, even for comedy institutions like her. A true pioneer,Â pathfinder, trailblazer, Rivers still finds (or expects) rejection and failureÂ behind every corner. (Suicide is easy; life is hard.) In every walk of life,Â women struggle (usually harder than men), and the lesson is in every frame ofÂ the film. The world owes us nothing. We are only worth what we do with eachÂ moment; resting on any laurels would be a living death. Life is in the doing.Â Life is hard work.
Fashionistas probably don’t need any urging to seeÂ “The September Issue.” A rare inside look at a venerable institution,Â the unruffled elegance of Vogue’s pages never belie the struggle and sweatÂ behind the scenes. Anna Wintour steps out into the light after two decades ofÂ hiding behind giant sunglasses and an inscrutably expressionless unreadable visage.Â Rumors have swirled around her as they do all powerful women, and perhaps thisÂ move to “open up” is a calculated one. Big dollars are at stake inÂ the world of fashion and publishing, and the veneer of civility and calmÂ barely masks the desperation as magazines face extinction, monthlies growÂ increasingly anachronistic, and the world teeters on the brink of a greatÂ depression. Famous faces (Vera Wang, Oscar De la Renta, John Galliano,Â Jean-Paul Gaultier, and many others) make appearances, courting Wintour’sÂ approval and Vogue’s impossibly important imprimatur.
Like a cartoon character, I dress in a kind of uniformÂ and am pretty much impervious to fashion. I have a closet full of black pantsÂ and thirty-plus years worth of (mostly black and mostly thrift-shop- found)Â tops. I have never subscribed to Vogue or any other fashion periodical devotedÂ 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,Â elective surgery and mirror-gazing. Still, “The September Issue”Â intoxicated me.
Perhaps life really is as simple as both films would haveÂ us believe. Little girls with critical or distant or competitive parents needÂ to prove themselves over and over; the gaping maw of early disapproval orÂ careless disdain will not be filled. Those early wounds never heal. That primalÂ pain stirs them to work hard, and we reap the benefits of all thatÂ overcompensation and effort.
I am no Maynard G. Krebs; work thrills meÂ and defines me and fulfills me. I enjoy nothing on earth more than feelingÂ tapped. I have known people who buy a package of razor blades at the cornerÂ drug emporium and come home to reward themselves with a nap, crossing theÂ completed errand off their to-do list and celebrating their dubiousÂ achievement. Life is too short not to live fully. There’s plenty of time toÂ rest when it’s all over.
Both documentaries celebrate impossibly hard work andÂ both are well worth your time, but “Joan Rivers: A Piece of Work”Â will probably stay with you longer. She’s a treasure, and filmmakersÂ Ricki Stern and Anne Sundberg have honored her with honesty and great care.