Adieu Joan Rivers – a comedian with a calling to make people laugh, cringe

By Eleanor Ringel Cater

It could’ve been a joke Joan Rivers told on herself. Something about biting the dust while under the knife — a typical self-deprecating Rivers spin on her own penchant for multiple cosmetic surgeries.

Only she would’ve made it really funny.  And really, really transgressive.

Rivers didn’t have much of a movie career. No wonder. Just how, one wonders, would Hollywood have cast a pretty petite blonde with a biting wit and a tongue double-dipped in acid and vulgarity?  Not exactly Julie Andrews. Or Meryl Streep.

Rivers did appear frequently in TV movies (a woman’s place is in the home…video?)  And the more famous she became, the more she was cast as herself — in her caustic “Can we talk?” mode.

However, she did show up in at least one Big Name Movie: “The Swimmer.” As Burt Lancaster swam his way home across John Cheever’s vision of Suburbia circa mid-1960s (think, a series of chlorine-soaked circles of hell), the star popped up poolside at a cocktail-party-in-progress. Rivers was among the crowd of well-heeled philistines. Nobody whispers “Plastics,” but the implication is clear.

Plus — and hardly anyone ever mentioned this before the appreciations — she directed a movie called “Rabbit Test.” Released in 1978, the picture starred Billy Crystal as a young man who finds himself pregnant (this is a good 15 years before Arnold Schwarzenegger pulled the same trick in “Junior.”) The title refers to the old “the rabbit died” version of pregnancy testing before home pregnancy tests were invented.

Ultimately, it didn’t matter to Rivers that Hollywood didn’t know — or care about — what to do with her.  She knew what to do with Hollywood: hit it where it wears its self-infatuated glamour most conspicuously.

Stop ‘em dead on the Red Carpet.

Rivers virtually invented the Red Carpet as we know it now — a parade of sequined egos, ready (and, as the years passed, increasingly eager) for their close-up with Joan. “Who are you wearing” became the question of the evening. Be it Oscar, Emmy. Grammy or Globe, the apogee of the pre-event festivities was that all-important Joan Moment.

The best part was, the more the stars pandered, the more unpredictably poisonous she became.

When the Red Carpet became over-run with her imitators and knock-offs, she re-fashioned her coverage into “Fashion Police,” a guilty pleasure that allowed her to dish it out from the comfort of her own show on “E.”

Rivers always insisted that Joan Rivers was a creation — the brashness, the raunchiness, the fearlessness, all put on like a costume. But the incredible outpouring of affection that has greeted word of her death suggests we were in on the joke. And whatever her protestations, she was as quick as they come and twice as bright.

And a soft-y. Of all the coverage we’ve seen the past few days, while I’ve laughed at the jokes and appreciated the feminism (much of it long before the culture caught up), the clip I remember most is the one with Louis CK. “What we do is a calling,” she told her fellow comedian. “We make people happy. It’s a calling.”

I am so glad she was called.

Eleanor Ringel, Movie Critic, was the film critic for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution for almost 30 years. She was nominated multiple times for a Pulitzer Prize. She won the Best of Cox Critic, IMAGE Film & Video and Women In Film awards. An Atlanta native, she graduated from Westminster and Brown University. She was the critic on WXIA’s Noonday, a member of Entertainment Weekly's Critics Grid and wrote TV Guide’s movie/DVD. She is member of the National Society of Film Critics and currently talks about movies on WMLB and writes the Time Out column for the Atlanta Business Chronicle.

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