Joan Rivers, who died Thursday at 81, causing genuine grief to fans and maybe some relief to the celebs she mocked so mercilessly, didn’t just break the glass ceiling for female comics. It’s a little-known fact that she also punched out a few panes for women directors.
Although Rivers had a definite future as a dramatic actress (watch her touching turn in 1968’s Cheever-derived The Swimmer), her real movie legacy may be as a filmmaker. No kidding.
In 1978, Rivers helmed and co-wrote Rabbit Test, an occasionally tasteless, but often very funny film, starring Billy Crystal as the world’s first pregnant man. Yes, Ah-nuld. Junior is a rip-off.
Crystal plays Lionel Carpenter (don’t let the name fool you, he and mom, Doris Roberts, are as Jewish as Gefilte fish), still a virgin at 24, whose crazy cousin gets him laid by a pro. Although there are no scientific explanations, soon, citizenship teacher Carpenter is upchucking on a female student. Not long after, her fortune-telling grandma surmises that Carpenter is pregnant.
The high-concept premise is so-so, but the acting is terrific, the writing first-rate. Roberts, the quintessential Jewish mom, berates her son for leaving her, telling him that “Penguins stay with their mothers till death.” Oh, and “moving out” only means that Lionel is now in the apartment across the hall. Giving mommy the chance to barge in with her ever-present tabloid paper, thrilled to tell Lionel “news,” like Helen Keller was faking being deaf, mute, and blind. And reading aloud with relish that “her sister says she heard her laughing and talking on the phone with her accountant.” The barging-in neighbor bit is a little sitcom-y. But with such funny lines, who cares?
Rivers directs with a sure hand, with the emphasis on character, and the scenes with Roberts and Crystal are both real and hysterical. Add cameos by Charlotte Rae, Imogene Coca, Alice Ghostley, Tom Poston and Joan herself, and it’s comedy heaven with an edge. As Rae enters church for a baptism, she looks at Minister Poston’s crucifix and says, “I had nothing to do with that, you know.”
With its zany hospital sight gags beating Airplane! by two years, solid cinematography by the legendary Lucien Ballard and Crystal nimble and unforced, it’s a mystery why the film flopped. Ahead of its time, one imagines.
Still, Rabbit Test is a really good rental after a difficult day. As well as a sad reminder that we lost another comedy icon. Rivers not only broke with outdated female decorum, but also left a small, but indelible fingerprint on the world of film. Thanks for the laughs, Joan. In front of the camera. And behind it.
Rabbit Test, AVCO Embassy Pictures 1978, is available on DVD. There are clips of it on YouTube here.