Sunday, November 20, 2016

An Important New Biography

Leslie Bennetts' Last Girl Before Freeway: The Life, Loves, Losses and Liberation of Joan Rivers (Little, Brown and Co.) is an engrossing, well-researched, and smart biography of the comedian who had such an enduring impact on popular culture. It is also a testament to a woman who persevered against incredible odds to achieve stardom, and maintain it right up to her death (in 2014) at the age of 81.

A polarizing figure for much of her career, Joan Rivers was a mass of contradictions, all of which the author fully explores here. Her groundbreaking work influenced practically every female stand-up comic to follow. Rivers was a trailblazer who gave women a bold voice, yet often seemed stuck in a bygone era where they were judged largely on their face and figure. Often crass and vulgar onstage, in her private life she hungered for elegance and was drawn to men who were courtly and dignified. Bennetts shows us a woman who could be both amazingly generous, and surprisingly petty. The book draws on numerous revealing interviews, some of which -- Barry Diller, Barbara Walters -- cannot have been easy to get. Some consider Rivers a comic genius; others saw a performer who didn't know the meaning of good taste or subtlety. Both sides get a fair hearing here.

This is one of the most interesting biographies of the year.

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