(Let me begin by saying that this is going to be no love letter, but I will try to end it on a positive note.)
Upon hearing about the death of comedienne Joan Rivers at age 81, I feel compelled to strike a blow for the anti-fan side.
Yes, she was certainly a stand-up pioneer in the days when comedy was mostly looked upon as a man’s world. And I actually enjoyed her stand-up act very much…at least until the late 1970’s, when I was a teenager and Rivers started taking cheap shots at Karen Carpenter (who died from complications of anorexia) and Elizabeth Taylor (very much alive at the time, and sadly, a plus-sized national punchline).
Even back then, I remember wondering why Rivers thought it was necessary to single out certain celebrities for their physical traits, especially when hostile comics could have easily (and surprisingly didn’t) point out that she was no Sleeping Beauty. My opinion of Rivers’ nastiness only cemented whenever I’d watch her short-lived Fox talk show.
And unlike many of her male counterparts, Rivers was never able to translate her stand-up success into a movie career. (Notice that this week’s many laudatory obits of Rivers fail to mention her sole writing/directing movie credit, 1978’s “Rabbit Test,” starring Billy Crystal as the world’s first pregnant man.)
However, I will say that there is one item from Rivers’ career that has stuck with me throughout the decades, and in a positive way.
Those of you who grew up in the 1970’s will surely remember ABC’s “Tuesday Movie of the Week.” It was one of ABC’s early ratings hits pre-“Happy Days,” even though the “movie” usually amounted to an elongated TV episode. (Exceptions, of course, include the tearjerker “Brian’s Song,” and the early pro-gay drama “That Certain Summer.”)
But Rivers made a memorable mark on this TV genre by writing a black comedy titled “The Girl Most Likely To…” (WARNING: Spoilers follow!)
It starred Stockard Channing (in her major TV debut) as Miriam, a homely high-school girl. After a major humiliation at school, Miriam rushes off and into a severe car crash that leaves her doctors with no choice but to do major plastic surgery on her.
The surgery transforms Miriam into a woman so striking that her former peers don’t even recognize her. Noting this fact, Miriam decides to go back to the high-school he-men who made her life torturous, and exact some very nasty revenges upon them.
TV was still new to pushing social boundaries at that time (“All in the Family” was only two years old), and anyone who tuned into “The Girl Most Likely To…” expecting a sedate TV-movie really got an eyeful that night. IMHO, this was the one time that the acid side of Rivers’ wit aimed at its target and scored. Rather than making cheap wisecracks about famous people, this movie took a subjective, fearless look at school bullying (at a time when it wasn’t even considered a topic of scorn) and, of course, sexism.
You can view the movie in its entirely on YouTube, although it is split into several separate posts. Here’s the first part: