Photo: Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images
In the overall arc of Joan Rivers’s career, her 1978 film Rabbit Test, the one and only feature she ever directed, is now generally considered a minor setback. At the time of the film’s release, Rivers was already a well-known celebrity and familiar face; she was featured prominently in the posters as well as the trailer (even though she appears only briefly in the film, as a nurse who drops a colon in a hospital corridor). But the film flopped and was critically reviled. In later years, Rivers rarely mentioned the movie, the story of the world’s first pregnant man, though there is a funny 1986 clip of her razzing Siskel and Ebert about their pans of it; that was almost a decade after the film’s release, so its failure must have still stung, at least a little bit. It’s currently unavailable on DVD and almost never screened. You can, however, see it on YouTube:
Rabbit Test’s failure is understandable: It’s pretty much a terrible movie. Directed more like a sitcom than a film and full of dud jokes that feel like they’re waiting for a laugh track to kick in, it’s a good example of how the comedian’s ten-wisecracks-a-second humor didn’t necessarily translate to a narrative medium. Ebert’s actual review puts it pretty well: “Situations aren’t explored, characters aren’t developed, timing is ignored, but every 30 seconds there’s a would-be laugh.” I’d add that the film is also a good example of how much Rivers’s own delivery and presence added to her jokes: If this movie is missing anything the most, it’s her loudmouth, devil-may-care energy.
But it’s also a fascinating movie and, I daresay, curiously transgressive in its own rough way. The film follows shy, young virgin Lionel (Billy Crystal, in his feature-film starring debut), who still lives next to his mother, teaches ESL to uncomprehending immigrants, and spends evenings with a blow-up doll named Jackie. Taken by his alpha-male cousin Danny (Alex Rocco) to a sparsely attended USO dance, Lionel is pulled aside by one of the volunteers, a woman who claims to be happily married and uninterested in love, who dominates him in a darkened room. Suddenly, he’s experiencing morning sickness and feeling funny. The “mother” is out of the picture and never seen again; instead, Lionel strikes up a romance with one of his students, a gypsy named Segoynia (Joan Prather).
Lionel’s pregnancy is explained away pretty easily and surreally; basically, he had unprotected sex, like so many other people before him. (Contrast that with the Arnold Schwarzenegger comedy Junior, which involves an elaborate science experiment gone wrong.) But, of course, as the world’s first pregnant man, he immediately becomes the center of attention. (His doctor, played by Paul Lynde: “We’ll probably be asked to do the Johnny Carson Show … And no matter how much they beg, we must never do it with a guest host!”) He meets the president of the United States. (“Remember, after the president, the next one to feel your tummy must be the secretary of Labor.”) He gets a commemorative stamp. He’s knighted by the queen and blessed by the pope.
Along the way, Lionel himself begins to believe in his own specialness. “I deserve it,” he smugly tells an increasingly alarmed Segoynia, looking on at the people going crazy before him – even though he himself did nothing to get pregnant and at first wanted to abort the baby. But then the tide turns. The Indians point out that if men start to have babies, the population explosion will become unmanageable. Soon enough, all the people that were standing in adoration of Lionel are screaming for his head. The president, a god-fearing, good-old-boy type from Texas, returns to urge him to have an abortion. Lionel goes from feeling like the most important person in the world to feeling like his body no longer belongs to him — a pointed, and poignant, character trajectory.
I can run through a whole list of reasons why Rabbit Test is ultimately not a successful movie. For starters, it’s extremely poorly shot and edited. (It’s hard to believe that all that harsh lighting came courtesy of cinematographer Lucien Ballard, who also shot Stanley Kubrick’s The Killing and Sam Peckinpah’s The Wild Bunch.) And while Crystal’s nice-guy nebbish demeanor seems right for Lionel at first, he doesn’t really work up enough energy or urgency to help carry us as the story develops.
But still, Rivers should have been able to take the mulligan and direct again, because for all its flat jokes and drab filmmaking, Rabbit Test does have a loopy little perspective all its own. I’ve only read a couple of contemporaneous reviews of the film, but it appears to have gone mostly unmentioned that a woman getting a relatively rare chance to direct a movie in Hollywood chose to make one about a man going through pregnancy. Watching the entire world go crazy over a man having a baby — heaping prizes on him one minute, chasing after him with pitchforks the next — we can sense Rivers’s own bemusement. We can sense it when we see Lionel receiving an award from the United Nations, as the secretary general, a woman, declares, “All past progress pales compared to what you have accomplished. Next to you, the Moon Walk was doo-doo.” We can also sense it when Rivers shows us how little fuss is made of ordinary women’s pregnancy: One of Lionel’s ESL students gives birth right in the middle of the classroom.
We even sense it in the film’s final scene, a reenactment of the Nativity. As Lionel, hiding from the crowds, goes into labor, the camera pans up to the North Star, and a booming voice on the soundtrack exclaims, “Oh my God, it’s a girl!” In other words, even God is complicit in the overreaction. But Joan Rivers isn’t having any of it. “What’s the big deal?” you can hear her asking. “It’s just a guy having a baby!” Her movie is a cosmic joke turned into a teachable moment — a confused one, to be sure, but also revealing of the late comedian’s own unique take on the world.