She was a trailblazing stand-up performer and TV personality who was doing red-carpet snark long before it became a national pastime. But Joan Rivers — who died Thursday, Sept. 4, at the age of 81 —also made an impact at the movies, mostly doing what she was best at: Being herself, and speaking her mind.
Early in her career, Rivers played a small part in the Burt Lancaster 1968 classic The Swimmer, and in 1978, she was primarily behind the camera as the writer-director of The Rabbit Test, in which Billy Crystal, playing a pregnant man, made his screen debut. (Don’t ask.)
But it was in the ’80s that the comedian really started to make her mark in the movies, thanks to her caustic humor, infectious enthusiasm, and, of course, her Reagan-era catchphrase (“Can we talk?”). Here are three of her best big-screen turns:
The Muppets Take Manhattan (1984): Joan was at her girl-friendliest as a perfume girl who cheers up Miss Piggy with an impromptu makeover. The Muppets seem to draw out the softer side of Joan, and seeing her pal around with the porcine puppet makes it clear the pair would have hosted a heck of a daytime talk show together.
Spaceballs (1987): No one paid much attention when Mel Brooks’s Star Wars send-up first came out, but the film picked up a cult following on home video. Casting Rivers as Dot Matrix — the C-3PO-crossed-with-your-bubbe “Droid of Honor” to Princess Vespa — was one the film’s more inspired bits of silliness. She brought a bit of Catskills panache to Brooks’ lowbrow schtick.
Joan Rivers: A Piece of Work (2010) - If you are looking for Joan by the case rather than just a couple of shots, you can do no better than this documentary, a unvarnished look at the woman whose ability to make us simultaneously cringe and laugh, made her a legend. This is full-bore Joan, and her fearlessness is something to marvel at, even when you’re groaning.