Thursday, September 04, 2014


I spent most of my decades as a working film critic single-mindedly resisting interviews with movie stars.  It's not that I didn't want to meet and talk with them - I didn't want to meet and talk with them and then critique the movie each one was hawking.  Too awkward.  Impure.

On the other hand, I wouldn't give up the memories of some of the wonderful people I met during this conflicting process and, when pressed, I always mention Joan Rivers as my favorite interview - and without missing a beat.  Hands-down, she was the nicest person I met during an interview situation (David Niven runs a close second), largely because our time together took the form of a conversation, rather than an interview.

Joan asked me as many questions as I asked her. Perhaps a few more.

OK, I'm going to seriously date myself here...

It was April of 1978 and Joan came to Philadelphia to promote "Rabbit Test," the first and last feature film that she would direct.  It was a comedy (natch) about a pregnant man (played by Billy Crystal) and Joan got the chance to be a one-time auteur on the basis of her teleplays for two popular TV movies, "Husbands and Wives" and particularly "The Girl Most Likely," which provided Stockard Channing with her breakthrough role.

I was Joan's last interview of the day.  She was speaking to a student assembly at the University of Pennsylvania (to talk comedy and also gently nudge them to see "Rabbit Test") and it was arranged by Sam Bushman, the outsized Philly publicist handling Joan that day, that I would meet her afterwards in the student lounge on the Penn campus.

It was very informal, noisy and quite unforgettable.

More than 35 years later, much of our conversation is now a blur.  But I do remember that "Rabbit Test" was hardly discussed and two other points of conversation have also stayed with me.

Joan discussed the plight of her good friend Roddy McDowall, who was allegedly being harassed by the FBI for film piracy.  McDowall's hobby was collecting 16mm prints of major Hollywood titles.  The authorities were threatening to out McDowall who was closeted at the time.

And she was absolutely animated about what she saw as her next movie project - a collaboration with Jim Henson.  Joan had this idea for a black comedy in which The Muppets are kidnapped and tortured. Obviously, that film was never made. But Henson delivered his first feature, "The Muppet Movie," directed by James Frawley, a year after "Rabbit Test's" release.

Our interview ended when Sam reminded Joan that it was time for her drive back to New York.  She offered me a ride to the newspaper office and, as her limo pulled away, Joan lowered the window and shouted in her trademark raspy voice, "Study hard!," hectically waving to the kids in the immediate area.  She had a great voice - something that's rarely mentioned whenever someone writes about Joan Rivers.

A week later, after "Rabbit Test" opened, I received in the mail a photocopy of my (negative) review of the film. It was from Joan.  There was a handwritten note from Joan scrawled across it in red ink.

Seemingly unfazed by the review, she wrote: 

Dear Joe, 

It was lovely meeting you and spending time with you – you were one of the few people I was able to talk to about something other than “Rabbit Test” (death & saving animals, in case you’ve forgotten).

Anyhow,  again,  many thanks.  RT hit #1 in box-office grosses this week – and part of it is due to your kindness.



Note in Passing: Beyond "Rabbit Test," in which she also appeared, Joan Rivers enjoyed only a scant movie career, usually playing herself.  However, she did have one notable role in 1968 - co-starring in Burt Lancaster's "The Swimmer" as one of the people he meets as he spends an afternoon swimming across suburbia. I'm not sure if her scene was directed by the original filmmaker, Frank Perry, or Sydney Pollack who replaced Perry on the troubled production.  Her character's name?  Joan.


Sheila said...

Wonderful, indeed

Cheryl said...

That's an amazing story and shows a side of her personality that I would not have known about. So thank you.

the other Susan said...

Sadly my memories of Joan Rivers are of the caricature Joan Rivers. You're so lucky to have met the real thing.

Brian Lucas said...

I happened upon across Joe’s blog a while back and was heartened to see such enthusiastic discussions concerning neglected films and film people. My awareness of the richness and variety of films in the world has been broadened a great deal by his writings and I have been back regularly.

But I am here to mention my admiration for this little essay on Joan Rivers who,in many ways, has also been neglected and underrated.

So, for me, I’m excited to increase my understanding of of films and people that I most certainly would have continued to ignore.

Alex said...

The recent Joan Rivers doc was subtitled "A Piece of Work." Make that an extraordinary piece of work.

Harry said...

Thanks for sharing, Joe!

Kiki said...

Thanks for this, Joe. Nice story. I first saw Rivers (and Jackie Mason) at a club in NYC called The Rat Fink Room (Marian MacPartland was playing in the front bar). This was back in 1964, maybe '65. I quite liked her back then because she'd say stuff like "You know what they call an unmarried 30 year old woman? A spinster! You know what they call an unmarried 90 year old man? A catch!"

But I lost track of her because I never watched late night TV back then. And I never even heard of a movie called "Rabbit Test." Don't remember her in "The Swimmer."

I did see her on recent TV shows where she and her mini-me daughter trashed how people look/dress and all I could think was, What a dreadful waste of negative energy.

And her documentary, "Joan River - A Piece of Work" left me feeling sorry for her. Jesus, give it a break, girl!

I will now go to Wikipedia and look up "Rabbit Test." Sounds horrid.

joe baltake said...

"What a dreadful waste of negative energy." Well-put, Kiki. I agree, Rivers frittered away her later years and her talent on mean-spirited trivia. But why? She certainly didn't need the money. Her NY pad is reportedly as handsomely appointed as a mansion. I guess she just loved being out there, in front of an audience. Her daughter (wickedly described by you as "mini-me") said her mom just loved to entertain people and make them laugh. I just wish she had eschewed trashing the way celebrities dress and look as a means to getting those laughs. All this started back in the 1970s with fat jokes at Liz Taylor's expense. It was so consciously hurtful, which is odd because, in her off-stage life, Joan Rivers wasn't petty or vicious at all. I admit it: I don't understand this "anything for a laugh" logic that so many comics espouse/embrace and rationalize.

carlye said...


g.w. said...

I loved your personal story about Joan, and am especially touched to hear she was your favorite interview. I envy your memory of her.

Claire said...

That is such a warm memory. Thanks. She was, indeed, a beautiful human being.

Joe Richardson said...

Thanks so much for this. I just loved her, and can't believe she's gone.

roberta said...

I have been crying for 2 days over the death of Joan Rivers who I felt I knew but never mer and that’s after being depressed for several weeks over Robin who I knew personally. Both gone way too soon.

It’s great that you have that personal memory from Joan Rivers. I’m sure you will treasure it.

I’m still in disbelief and devastated.

Thanks again for sharing your memories.

Jane said...

Enjoyed your memory.

Ginny said...

What a great story. Thanks for sharing it.

walt said...

Good Lord, the comments read like "Gone With the Wind"!(har,har,har)

a different joan said...

What a lovely story! I have always loved Joan Rivers' comedy. How nice to hear that she was a nice person to boot!

Vivian said...

For some reason, I find it fascinating that Joan discussed the subject of death with you during the interview. I wish I knew what she said. Do you?

joe baltake said...

Vivian: For the life of me, I can't remember how Joan and I came to discuss death. My hunch is that it had to do with the then-recent passing of someone well-known. Just a hunch. But, I agree with your implication - the mention of death in her note to me is somewhat jarring in light of her own passing

Dick Delson said...

I knew Joan Rivers and worked with her over the years. She was a treasure.

Why in the world she had all those surgeries is beyond me.
Unlike people like Julie Christie, she just refused to allow herself to age.

As for Roddy McDowall, he was a client and a good friend. I remember when he got sick. I begged him to allow me to visit him, but he refused. He was fabulous and I adored him.

Silver said...

I was agnostic about Joan Rivers, neither a fan nor a detractor. My mother loved her, though, and although Mom had nearly a zero sense of humor (too serious and prim) could quote Rivers' one-liners. THAT WAS AMAZING.

But after reading the outpouring of comments and remembrances of Joan Rivers and her very long career, I realize I missed someone unique and uniquely American. My Loss.

Maybe not so surprising, I do remember her at the outdoor cocktail party in The Swimmer. The not surprising part is that I love that melancholy movie and have seen it several times. It is a searing story and movie — an example of Hollywood casting and producing an excellent film that did justice to the offbeat John Cheever story. Burt Lancaster was marvelous in it! The movie is a stand-out (possibly an outcast) for the time it was made and, like John O'Hara stories, its honesty and realism may have been too much for general audience approval. I think that because practically no one I know (I discount you, of course) has even heard of it or saw it.