The pitch: She-Devil crossed with The Abominable Dr. Phibes, as filtered through the mind of the recently departed Joan Rivers.
Relatively long before she would guest host The Tonight Show and eventually head the first (and so far last) late night talk show hosted by a woman, Joan Rivers wrote the story for and co-scripted a made-for-TV movie, The Girl Most Likely To… The ’70s was, believe it or not, a golden age for TV movies. Rather than sleazy exposes on nearing-the-last-of-their-five-minutes celebrities or biopics of tabloid criminals, these were movies with creative ambitions that transcended their often skimpy budgets. You got Look What Happened to Rosemary’s Baby…er, my mistake. I mean, there was Killdozer…okay, that’s not right either. Well, alright, like with anything there were some oddballs and duds, but there were genuine classics that at least nearly rivaled Hollywood like Helter Skelter, a Dracula adaptation written by Richard Matheson and starring Jack Palance, the Steven Spielburg directed Duel, the still fondly remembered horror anthology Trilogy of Terror…in an age before home video, it wasn’t a bad substitute.
The Girl Most Likely To… is a pitch black comedy that follows the trials and tribulations of Miriam Knight (Stockard Channing!), an unattractive and witty Jewish girl who, as the old sexist joke goes, just wants to go to college to earn her MS degree. The only problem is, no matter how many diverse classes she takes and how many schools she transfers to, she can’t even get a date or make any female friends. Also it doesn’t help that her childhood friend her family wants her to marry, Herman (Warren Berlinger), doesn’t want anything to do with her either. Even worse, at the university she just started attending, people are more hostile than ever, especially her cheerleader roommate Heidi (Susanne Zenor) and a football star she’s roped into tutoring, Moose (Larry Wilcox!). When Heidi deliberately turns a rare moment of triumph for her into a public humiliation, Miriam speeds off campus in a car, causing a head-on collision. Here the movie shifts gears, as plastic surgery has turned Miriam into a seductive bombshell, giving her an anonymity and sexual firepower she plans to use to have her homicidal revenge; that is, if a police detective (Ed Asner!) doesn’t stop her.
Joan Rivers’s voice permeates this thing, especially echoing through Miriam’s self-depreciating narration and various snippets of dialogue. There are lines like Heidi casually mentioning, “When I was engaged to him, his wife became pregnant again, so I figured he wasn’t sincere.” Or Miriam narrating, “My homely cousin Sheila didn’t have any [friends or dates], and she lived a full and happy life, right up to the day of her suicide.” Really, it invites anyone familiar with her style, especially her (in)famous fixation on fashion and physical appearances, to play psychoanalyst. After all, the first half of the movie is about a lonely, frustrated young woman who tries desperately to compensate for her inability to make friends or attract romantic attention with humor and self-depreciation. As exaggerated as Miriam’s torments are, there are a couple of uncomfortable moments that I think would ring true for many former and current social misfits (myself included), such as, when a medical intern humiliates Miriam in front of a crowd of his peers as part of a hazing ritual, she cheerfully dances and bows before the cheering men even as inside she reels from the horror, betrayal, and humiliation.
But putting aside the later career of Joan Rivers (especially things like her participation in the truly loathsome show Fashion Police), this movie has interest even if one is not a fan (or hater) of Rivers. Admittedly the second half of the film, despite seeming to promise richer material, is weaker than the first. It doesn’t quite strike that balance of farce and darkness as deftly as the first half, and Miriam’s revenge schemes somehow are rushed through too quickly without truly feeling cathartic or tragic. On the whole, though, I would deem this one of the more ambitious and successful black comedies I’ve seen, and I know I’m not alone, since it is the rare TV movie from the past to get a relatively recent DVD release (although of course it’s also available on YouTube). It’s definitely worth checking out especially for fans of TV movies from the era or of Joan Rivers. Or if you just want to see the closest thing to a female version of Dr. Phibes out there.