In her five-plus decades in showbiz, Joan Rivers did it all and then some: stand-up comedy, television, radio, Broadway, movies, books, even peddling a line of costume jewelry on QVC. The span of her career encompasses everything from live TV to Twitter, and she went from lauded success to ostracized failure and back more than once. In Last Girl Before Freeway: The Life, Loves, Losses and Liberation of Joan Rivers, Leslie Bennetts explores the pioneering comedian’s journey from obscurity to American icon.
It’s a compelling story about a fascinating woman, who turned pain and anger into comedy—she made her “ugly girl” status into a joke, and managed to successfully deliver one-liners about her husband’s suicide. Unfortunately, the author sometimes errs on the side of letting others tell us what Rivers was like, rather than actually showing us herself. There are seemingly thousands of quotes from hundreds of people, but the majority are light on insight—they met her once, or she was an influence on them, but after the first few dozen platitudes about Rivers’ talent and influence, more becomes overkill.
Still, Last Girl Before Freeway hits anecdotal gold when letting the wackier stories have space to unfurl—when parents, boyfriends and purse-wielding aunts brawl over Joan’s fortune; or when Elizabeth Taylor, a favored Rivers target, shows up unexpectedly to one of Joan’s dinner parties. Bennetts also gives a lengthy examination of the late comedian’s acrimonious departure from The Tonight Show to host her own (and quickly canceled) talk show on the then-fledgling Fox network, illuminating how Rivers’ ambition, her husband’s ego, the network’s obliviousness and what may have been an ill-timed prank nearly destroyed her career.
Rivers was known for being merciless onstage; offstage, she could be either an angel or a harridan, depending on her mood and those who surrounded her. The fury she focused on herself she turned on other women, especially in her late-life career on Fashion Police. Still, one also feels sympathy for Joan, who, no matter how high she climbed, seemed to always think she’d fall back into obscurity at any second. Last Girl Before Freeway is the tale of a woman who went from dive bars to red carpets—and did it her way every step of the way.