Wednesday, April 17, 2013

Joan Rivers with Burt Lancaster

Promoting a new comedy book she wrote, Joan Rivers was on guest on NPR's Fresh Air hosted by Terry Gross.  Joan killed.  She was really funny and really quick in that interview last year.  So quick that I felt some of her one-liners went over Terry's intellectual head.  Joan's current book is called I Hate Everyone...Starting With Me.
One thing Joan mentioned, without bitterness, was that she's never called "actress" and she's never really been seriously honored for her decades of work.  She's nearly 80.  She's been a comedy headliner since the 1960s when very few women were stand-up comedy headliners getting solo spots on TV variety shows.  Joan was right.  She's not just a comedian.  Another thing -- she's been profiled, roasted and featured...but she's never really been seriously honored for her long career.  I'm not the only person who hoped the documentary, Joan Rivers:  A Piece of Work, would land a Oscar nomination for Best Documentary of 2010.  It should have been nominated, but it wasn't.
If you're a Joan Rivers fan and if you're pursuing a career in stand-up comedy, you need to see this documentary.  It's wickedly funny, yet it's also quite honest in showing the hard work and heartbreak that go into a career of trying to make people laugh.  You really learn more about her and it opens with Joan at her brass ovaries best.  There's a heckler in a Wisconsin audience.  He's offended at a joke she did.  First of all, how could you pay to be in the audience of a Joan Rivers comedy show and not know what kind of humor she does?  She's not Jerry Seinfeld.  She's not Bill Cosby.  She's not Paula Poundstone.  But that is an aspect of the business you have to deal with -- and deal with it, she did.

It's rarely mentioned that Joan is a writer.  I've blogged previously that she co-wrote one of the best, smartest and funniest made-for-TV movies of the 1970s.  It could probably air this weekend on ABC opposite NBC's Smash and make good numbers.  ABC premiered The Girl Most Likely To... in 1973.  Stockard Channing killed and killed in this black comedy about Miriam Knight, a sweet and lonely ugly duckling college whiz...

...who's turned into a lethal swan after a disfiguring car crash and plastic surgery.  Now a real babe with a hot figure and a new face, she uses her brilliant mind to get revenge on every mean sorority girl and mean guy who mistreated her.  The Girl Most Likely To... is available on DVD.  Stockard Channing is fabulous in this murder mystery.  Joan's script showcased her comedy skills.  This was five years before Channing played a high schooler in the hit film version of Grease.  Ed Asner (The Mary Tyler Moore Show) co-stars in the TV movie as a slightly awkward and unmarried detective on the case who becomes fascinated with the killer's amazing intellect.  People who liked Desperate Housewives would love The Girl Most Likely To...  Great writing from Joan.

At a time when hardly any women had broken into the behind-the-camera boys' club and were directing Hollywood movies, Joan wrote and directed a 1978 comedy called Rabbit Test.  Billy Crystal made his film debut as a straight bachelor who gets pregnant.
Rivers obviously called in favors from her many friends.  Doris Roberts, Paul Lynde, Imogene Coca, Fannie Flagg, Alice Ghostley, Rosey Grier and others are in it.  Rabbit Test is a pretty cheesy comedy, not nearly as good as as The Girl Most Likely To... and it's not up there with the movies Woody Allen directed in the 1970s.  But you've got to give Joan credit for getting it done.

Joan Rivers' first film appearance was a dramatic role opposite an Oscar-winning Hollywood legend.  The film will be shown during this month's Turner Classic Movies Film Festival in Hollywood.  Based on a work by author John Cheever, Burt Lancaster starred as The Swimmer in 1968.  This is the kind of character you'd associate with Don Draper on TV's Mad Men.  In Connecticut, in a community of privilege, this ad man decides to go home via the neighbors' swimming pools.  He drops into each home and asks if he can use the pool.  With each visit, we discover more about his life.  This is a very National Public Radio kind of movie, if you will.  Keep it mind, it's based on a philosophical story by John Cheever.  And the tone seems to change during the film.  Frank Perry (Mommie Dearest) was the original director.  During the shoot, he was replaced by Sydney Pollack.  Lancaster is good in this meaning-of-life story.  He never shied away from films that had social significance and made audiences think.

He was 52 when he made it and his athletic 52 year-old physique is one of the best things about the film.  Also, he was one of the first stars of classic Old Hollywood to go naked.  In one scene, the ad man visits his nudist neighbors.  We saw a bare-bottomed Burt.

In a party scene, he has an encounter with a lonely young woman.  She's played by Joan Rivers.  Watch the scene.  It's not a long scene but Joan is excellent in it.  She's playing the character.  She, as an actress, is keeping up with Burt Lancaster.
She's right to feel disappointed that she's rarely called an actress even thought she's acted on film and she's acted on Broadway.  Dane Cook is called an actor.  So is Adam Sandler.  So are Lily Tomlin, Eddie Murphy and Billy Crystal.  So is Louis C.K.  He even showed us how good an actress Joan is in one of the best episodes of Louie on FX.  Joan played herself.  In her career, that's probably been her most challenging role.  You'll know what I mean if you watch her documentary.

If you're lucky enough to attend the Turner Classic Movies Film Festival (wish I could go), The Swimmer shows you how good a famous funny lady could be in a dramatic acting role.  And Burt Lancaster  is as much a wet dream in this film as he was on the beach in From Here To Eternity (1953).


  1. I agree with You Bobby - Joan Rivers deserves more recognition than she has been given- as an actress, writer and comedian - I love you Joan !

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