A warm if not quite comprehensive-feeling biography of a performer who, even for a celebrity, elicited an unusually strong personal affection from fans, Lisa D’Apolito’s Love, Gilda tells the far too short story of Gilda Radner. Understandably weighted toward her years on Saturday Night Live, the polished debut offers a chance to both reconnect with her most famous recurring characters there and to marvel at the amount of fun she clearly had in Studio 8H. Though it’s sad to think there may be young audiences who aren’t already familiar with Radner, this will serve as a fine introduction once it hits TV — albeit one that sends viewers straight off to YouTube in search of full clips.
In a practically unprecedented move for a film fest, this opening-night offering was preceded not just by the customary, bumbling “welcome to Tribeca” preamble by founders Robert De Niro and Jane Rosenthal, and a long list of thank-yous from the director, but by a separate, heartfelt introduction by Tina Fey, who choked up twice while describing how inspiring Radner was to her own generation of SNL women.
Fey isn’t in the film, which is odd given how many of her contemporaries are. Amy Poehler, Maya Rudolph and others kick things off, reading from pages of Radner’s notebooks — which, like the audiotapes we hear, seem to have been (we’re never told) preparatory for the writing of the memoir released the year she died. (Later, Poehler will describe most of her own SNL characters as “weak, 2.0 versions” of Radner’s.)
Soon we’re transported to 1950s Detroit, watching home movies of a little girl whose spirit is immediately recognizable. Radner was a well-off kid, whose dad made money with apartment hotels and whose mom insisted on long winters in Miami. Mom also, heartbreakingly, got a doctor to put her slightly chubby daughter on diet pills at the age of 10. The film says no more about Mrs Radner’s role in the eating disorders that would plague Gilda into adulthood, but it probably doesn’t have to. It does, however, return occasionally to the hole left in Gilda’s life when her father died before she graduated high school. Radner’s own journals suggest this might explain how many short-term boyfriends she had.
But it was hard for friends to see the pain beneath her exuberance. Martin Short, who co-starred in a Canadian production of Godspell with her at the start of their careers, dated her on and off for years. He admits he was “unsophisticated enough” at the time to believe that someone who had money, and who was loved by everyone she met, could have no reason to be unhappy. That lack of psychological insight doomed the relationship, he thinks. But we’re left to imagine for ourselves how Radner’s relationships went once fame arrived. Former boyfriends like Bill Murray are notably absent here. (Murray may be hard to get on the phone, but it’s not as if he refuses to discuss her in interviews, and a devastatingly sweet story he told of her final days in the book Live From New York would be welcome near the doc’s end.)
The absence of Murray and some other key SNL co-stars makes one wonder about the politics behind the doc’s production. (D’Apolito was making fundraising videos for the Gilda’s Club charity when she decided to start the film, and is clearly sensitive to surviving family members’ feelings.) But we hear from enough people in each stage of Radner’s career to get a sense of things — even if we’re left wanting more performance clips from before SNL. At 86 minutes, the film could easily fit in more actual performance footage.
Amid the first-person talk of insecurities and longing for a lasting romance, we get a couple of key insights into Radner’s talents onstage. A vet of her years at Toronto’s Second City notes that, while she wasn’t as good an improviser as other famous troupe members, she understood how to endear herself to audiences when things weren’t going well. Later we’ll see this for ourselves: When an SNL sketch in which she played Howdy Doody’s marionette wife is bombing, Radner instinctively flops per limbs around Laraine Newman repeatedly until Newman and the crowd lose it.
Sketching the behind-the-scenes dynamic as the inaugural SNL cast was starting to break apart, the movie shows bits of her one-woman Broadway show, which gave her a chance to sing and dance but ultimately convinced her she didn’t want to be a “solo personality” who could only play herself. Soon she’d be cast in an action comedy called Hanky Panky alongside Gene Wilder, and her life would change completely.
The movie is tender in recounting how the two fell in love and created a life away from New York; how their work together on Haunted Honeymoon flopped; how she longed for kids but didn’t manage to have one; and how a period of unexplained weakness led to a long fight with ovarian cancer. In videos Wilder made, we watch her go through chemotherapy; friends recall the ensuing ups and downs of remission and recurrence. Once she was well enough, Alan Zweibel recalls, “she was on a mission” both to make cancer a thing people could discuss in public and to help those suffering from it. She lived just long enough to finish her book and to inspire the later creation of a network of cancer support groups nationwide.
Production company: 3 Faces Films
Director: Lisa D’Apolito
Producers: Lisa D’Apolito, Bronwyn Berry, Meryl Goldsmith, James Tumminia
Executive producers: Edie Baskin, Christopher Clements, Julie Goldman, Meryl Goldsmith, Carolyn Hepburn, Courtney Sexton, Alan Zweibel, Robin Zweibel
Directors of photography: Rob Featherstone, Nick Higgins
Editors: Anne Alvergue, David Cohen, Kristen Nutile
Composer: Miriam Cutler
Venue: Tribeca Film Festival (Gala)
Sales: Josh Braun, Submarine