The Girl Most Likely To...
Joan Rivers might have been the first female stand-up comic I had ever seen. I had seen comedic actresses on TV—Carol Burnett, Isabel Sanford, Nell Carter—but I associated Rivers with stand-up. I would see quite a bit of her on TV, and she was part of the zeitgeist at the time.
I thought she was funny, not so much for the things she said as for the way she acted: gossipy, manic, catty. It’s a safe bet I knew no one in real life remotely like her.
In 2010 there was a documentary on her, Joan Rivers: A Piece of Work. It provided insight on where she came from and how her distinctive brand of humor originated. I remember she said in the doc, and I’m paraphrasing, something about how “ugly” women made better comediennes. I suspect she was making a distinction from comedic actresses, because we can all think of beautiful examples of those: Carole Lombard, Rosalind Russell, Madeline Kahn.
If this were true, was it a form of compensation? Tina Fey is good looking, no doubt. Would I call her sexy? The word can mean different things to different people. I wouldn’t kick her out of my bed; I think she’d be a lot of fun to be with and would have lots of interesting things to say, and that’s sexy, in its own way. But I think we all know what Rivers was referring to: objective physical beauty.
Rivers was one smart cookie: in prep school she was co-chairman and at Barnard College she majored in English lit and anthropology, but she said she was overweight back then and this caused lifetime issues. I have at least three (3) female friends who have struggled with body issues as a result of their mothers’ influence. It’s a real problem.
Rivers compensated with humor. Here’s an excerpt from a recent biography of Rivers that goes into more detail on her rise to stardom, including some of the wild stories she told about herself, some true, some... questionable.
In 1973, while her stock was going up, she wrote, with Agnes Gallin, the teleplay for a TV movie which must have been inspired by her younger years, The Girl Most Likely To... It aired on ABC in November.
It was the first credited role in a feature for Stockard Channing, five years before Grease. She plays a homely-looking college student, unpopular and unloved, who gets in a car crash. The subsequent plastic surgery turns her from ugly duckling into swan, and she dishes out some violent-yet-funny payback to everyone who humiliated and mocked her.
I recognize the character Miriam, and I’ll bet you do too: young women who may not look like movie stars, but who have other attractive qualities, such as humor. Miriam is funny and smart, like Rivers probably was at the same age, but in this story those qualities go unappreciated until she becomes physically beautiful—but for her schoolmates, it’s too late.
My three friends are all surrounded by friends (and in two cases, husbands) who love and adore them. They’re lucky in that sense—but the struggles they’ve endured because of their perceived physical shortcomings have taken their toll on all of them to some degree. It’s frustrating to see, because I know from firsthand experience with them that all the positive reinforcement, all the love and encouragement, only goes so far in the end if they don’t take it to heart.
Channing is very good in channeling Rivers’ spirit, though the story itself takes awhile to get going. Too much time is spent on the “before” part of Miriam’s life, which unfolds pretty much as you expect; it’s the “after” part that’s what makes the story worth watching, and I did feel a bit shortchanged.
Girl is a total fantasy. A movie like Welcome to the Dollhouse shows the painful reality of the lives of girls like Miriam, but there’s nothing wrong with indulging in a little fantasy, I suppose.