Could Joan Rivers have had the same career as Woody Allen?
It might seem an odd question if you only know Rivers from her talk show omnipresence and her work on E!, but there was a time when she had a chance to break into film the same way some of her comic peers were, and I can't help but wonder what would have happened if “Rabbit Test” had worked.
When she broke through as a comic in the mid-'60s, she already had a fully-formed comic voice. She was from New York, and there was an edge to her work from the very start. She had an attitude about aesthetic beauty, about celebrity, about women in culture. She was one of those comics who straddled an older tradition of comedy, based on careful joke structure and a sort of surface level engagement and a newer tradition, in which taboos were smashed and society was fair game for deeper examination.
When Woody Allen made the jump to movies, he did it with very broad, very silly comedies. That's not to disparage those films at all, since I think they remain among his best work. There is a huge sense of freedom in those early movies of his as he discovered who he was both as a filmmaker and as a performer, and I think they are fair reflections of his comic persona at the time. It was only after he had consistently proven himself to be a potent commercial force that he began to mix it up and try to get more serious, and even then, some of his early attempts like “Interiors” and “Stardust Memories” were seen as major failures.
Rivers wrote one film for TV called “The Girl Most Likely To…” that aired in 1973, and while I haven't seen it, it's immediately apparent that Rivers was writing from a personal place. The tagline for the film was “They treated her like a dog. Now she's a fox. And she's going to make them pay.” It's dark comedy starring Stockard Channing about a girl who gets plastic surgery, then starts wreaking revenge on anyone who treated her badly when she was ugly. No matter how that's played, there's a genuine anger underscoring that premise, especially when you consider it against Rivers in her real life, where plastic surgery has been a constant.
In 1978, though, she made the big jump and wrote and directed “Rabbit Test,” starring Billy Crystal. From the start, though, it seems like things were stacked against her. I'd love to know whose decision it was to shoot the film on video, then transfer it to film. In today's technical landscape, that sounds completely innocuous, but in 1978, that simply wasn't the way things worked, and “Rabbit Test” was actually a bit of a test case. As it happens, people realized very quickly why that wasn't feasible, and it's because it looked horrible. Considering Lucien Ballard was the director of photography (this is the genius who shot “The Wild Bunch,” for reference), it is almost startlingly ugly. It didn't help that Rivers thought more like a three-camera TV director than a film director, with a fairly locked-down style, but those early Woody Allen movies weren't particularly visually innovative, either. It took him several films to start to really master the craft and to think in visual terms, and by the time he made “Manhattan” with Gordon Willis shooting, he was working on another level entirely.
“Rabbit Test” is a frantic movie, and looking at it now, knowing it's the only time she ever got behind the camera, it feels like she was trying everything she could, throwing it all at the wall and just hoping for some sort of magic. There are jokes in the background, in the foreground, both in the staging and the dialogue, and there are even a fair number of gags that lacerate Rivers herself. If you've never seen the film, it is a curio more than anything. It tells the story of the first man to get pregnant and the fall-out from that… only it doesn't. I wonder if the ambition of that premise overwhelmed Rivers, because there is a great sharp film about gender politics that could be made about that situation. I am a firm believer that men are simply not strong enough to endure pregnancy. I watched what my wife went through with both of our kids, and I can't imagine doing it myself. For a woman to make that film in 1978 was a breakthrough moment, an impossibility, and when the film tanked, that was it. Rivers never got another chance to direct. I have to believe that if a man had made the same film and it had done the same business and he was of equal fame to Rivers at the time, he would have gotten a second chance to make a film. And a third. And even maybe a fourth. How many times have you seen someone make a first movie that bombs and then move on to direct something else? Not Rivers. Hollywood lost her number, and it smacks of a double standard.
I am not necessarily defending “Rabbit Test.” It's too busy, to unsure of itself, too desperate to please. But I am defending Joan Rivers, and I'm making the case that she should have had more opportunities. It is upsetting to realize how little has changed since 1978. Look at Lexi Alexander, who made “Punisher: War Zone.” She's got enough on-screen chops and enough behind-the-scenes credits that she should be working all the time. After “Punisher: War Zone” was released, though, she was pretty much offered up as the sacrificial lamb, and I think she took a hit in her career that a man would not have if he'd made that same film. Things haven't' changed much at all.
But the fact remains: Rivers did direct a movie, and if the system had absorbed her instead of rejecting her, who knows what could have been? She had a more political voice than Allen did with her first film, and I'm not sure she could have ever separated that out of her work. I'd like to think she would have gotten more savage, taken on even bigger targets. “Rabbit Test” is not a very good movie, but it is an important one, and the fact that you really can't see it at all today is just one more indignity heaped on a filmmaker who spent her long and vocal career as a performer shattering glass ceilings. As someone who loves film dearly, it depresses me to see that this particular glass ceiling was only dented.
Our thoughts are with her fans around the world and her family today.