In Praise of The Girl Most Likely To…, Joan Rivers’ Plastic Surgery Revenge Comedy

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From 1969 to 1975, ABC put out weekly films. They functioned as TV pilots, testing grounds for up-and-coming filmmakers, and places for new and old stars to shine. Every month, Chloe Walker revisits one of these movies. This is Movie of the Week (of the Month).

When you nestled down in front of your TV to watch an ABC Movie of the Week during the first half of the 1970s, you’d often be greeted by the sight of familiar faces. Less often, but not infrequently, you’d witness a new star in the making. In a genre seen as inherently throwaway, there was little pressure to deliver the performance of their lives, and yet a number of gifted up-and-comers–both in front of and behind the camera–took the opportunity to establish themselves as exciting talents to watch.

The most famous example is Steven Spielberg, whose MOTW Duel was so phenomenally popular that it was later released in cinemas across the world, becoming the nascent legend’s theatrical feature debut. The list of actors to have got an early break in that humble slot is also formidable: Blythe Danner, Sam Elliott, Jeff Bridges, Billy Dee Williams, Katey Sagal, Kitty Winn and Sally Field all made pre-stardom appearances in an ABC MOTW.

1973’s The Girl Most Likely To… played host to two rising stars.  While she’d been nationally famous for her guest spots on the Johnny Carson show since 1965, the MOTW was the first screenplay credit for Joan Rivers. It starred Stockard Channing–in her first leading role–as “ugly duckling” college student Miriam Knight, who’s mercilessly bullied by her classmates for her looks. When a car accident results in plastic surgery that turns her into a knockout, she decides to use her newfound beauty to enact lethal vengeance on her unwitting tormentors. 

Between the prolonged cruelty of her bullying, and the esoteric nature of her retribution, The Girl Most Likely To… plays like a delightfully deranged riff on both Carrie and Theatre of Blood. Considering Miriam doesn’t start getting her own back until over halfway through the film’s 74 minutes, the sheer range and volume of her extravagant revenge schemes is mind-boggling; from a skydiving “accident” to a bomb in a billiard table, her lethal creativity knows no bounds. And somehow, there’s still room for a wonderfully askew romance between Miriam and the cop (a terrific Ed Asner) in hot pursuit–this is a movie that doesn’t waste a minute. 

Right from the outset, The Girl Most Likely To… boasts a specific, confident tone. Although pre-surgery Miriam could easily be taken for a pitiable creature, Channing never quite lets us. Her obsession with finding a boyfriend should be off-puttingly retrograde, yet Channing plays her with such an endearing combination of goofy vulnerability and enviable bravery (her twirl and bow after she realizes a young doctor has tricked her into a make-out session in front of an audience of his braying colleagues is heartbreaking), you can’t help but root for her.  That she spends half her performance under a mound of prosthetics makes her work even more impressive—her makeup artist, Phil Rhodes, was actually the man responsible for turning Marlon Brando into Don Corleone in The Godfather the year before!

While The Girl Most Likely To… is as obsessed with appearances as you’d expect from something penned by Rivers, she and co-writer Agnes Gallin cram in a raft of other off-the-wall jokes that round out the movie’s singular world. From a priest’s heartfelt eulogy to a departed plumber (“He was a devoted husband, a pillar of the community, and a reasonably priced plumber who actually showed up…”) to the list of college courses our heroine has taken that prove vital to her slaying spree (nursing, skydiving, police procedure…), to the impassioned declaration of love Asner’s cop directs at murderer Miriam (“Your style! Your eyes! Your modus operandi!”), the general loopiness on show here is difficult to resist.

Though it is first and foremost a comedic venture, nevertheless, an air of melancholy permeates. Because most of her lines are delivered with the wry detachment of a stand-up comic, Miriam’s reaction when she first notices how differently people are treating her after her transformative plastic surgery hits surprisingly hard–Channing’s precisely measured combination of surprise, sadness and anger has a real ache to it. Placed in the context of Rivers’ own notorious relationship with plastic surgery, and her general obsession with appearances, that unexpected poignancy grows more potent. Who’d have thought that Joan Rivers would pen the ultimate revenge movie for homely girls, where the ones who get murdered are those who are cruel about other people’s looks? That the story was in part based on her own experience makes it all play like something of a supervillain origin story. 

For both Rivers and Channing, The Girl Most Likely To… seemed to promise big things that never really materialized.  Rivers only wrote two movies afterwards–Husbands and Wives (seemingly lost to oblivion) and Rabbit Test (watch the trailer, and you’ll wish it had met the same fate)–before calcifying into her niche: Being vicious about people’s appearances on various TV shows. And although Channing still had Rizzo waiting right round the corner, as well as an Oscar-nominated role in Six Degrees of Separation two decades later, leading parts would remain sporadic after a string of mid-70s movies intended to solidify her on the A-list (The Fortune, Sweet Revenge and Big Bus) all floundered at the box office.

The film they collaborated on, however, surpassed expectations, becoming one of the highest-ever rated ABC MOTW after its first airing. When Rivers died in 2014, The Girl Most Likely To… actually made quite a few of her obituaries–a real rarity for a TV movie in the context of a long life in the public eye. And in 2019, a Kino Lorber Blu-ray restoration left the film in such crisp, colorful condition, if it weren’t for the giveaways of that 74-minute runtime and the ill-disguised fade outs for ad breaks, you might never guess it started its life so humbly on the small screen.  

It’s doubtful that many stars who got their breaks on a MOTW would consider them a career highlight decades down the line, but 50 years after it first aired, The Girl Most Likely To… holds up in impressive style. Sure, Duel is a solid movie, but does it really have anything that even touches Stockard Channing murdering a man via unnecessary appendectomy?

Chloe Walker is a writer based in the UK. You can read her work at Culturefly, the BFI, Podcast Review, and Paste.