Love, Gilda is a poignant showcase for a great comedienne
Anyone who saw Gilda Radner on Saturday Night Live back in the day laughed at her and fell in love with her. She was zany, bouncing around as the energetic child, Judy Miller; amusing mishearing things as the addled Emily Litella; hilarious as the awkward Lisa Loopner; and sarcastic, sounding off as the brassy Roseanne Roseannadanna.
Love, Gilda, an affectionate, funny, and touching documentary about Radner shows not just how the late comedienne developed these memorable characters, but also how she herself developed.
Director Lisa Dapolito introduces Gilda through film and TV clips, quotes—she talks about comedy as a way of being in control—and observations, such as how neuroses were the only subject the comedienne didn’t have to research. As a child, growing up in Detroit, Radner loved to pretend, and home movies show her acting out and finding how humor unites folks. She battled weight issues starting at age 10, and was told by her governess, “Dibby,” that if people teased her about being fat, making a joke about it will disarm them.
The advice, the film shows, helped her comic, cockeyed outlook on life, and before long she was in Toronto, doing theater with Martin Short, as well as improv, and getting cast in Second City. When John Belushi called her in 1974, Radner joined the National Lampoon Radio Hour, where she further developed her comic ideas and characters. Then Saturday Night happened and took her career to the next level.
Dapolito adroitly uses Radner’s audiotapes, photographs, as well as her diaries—read by former SNL cast members including Melissa McCarthy, Bill Hader, Amy Poehler, and Maya Rudolph—to recount some of her key thoughts and experiences. The film also addresses Radner’s depression, her serial dating, and her eating disorder. Dapolito also raises the theme of how much harder it was for female comediennes back in the day (not that it’s changed much) to prove themselves and be taken seriously.
However, these critical moments never weigh down this valentine; rather they enhance it, showing Radner as a woman who felt the stress of having to find the joke or whose fame kept her from being the underground voyeur who studied people to portray. What is more, these darker moments emphasize how Radner’s skill of losing herself in other identities only made the struggle for finding her own life harder. When Radner has great success with her one-woman Broadway show, Gilda Radner—Live from New York, she claims she never felt more alone.
Her despair is lifted when she meets Gene Wilder and falls in love with him. She learns tennis and French to please him, they try to start a family, and they make a handful of less than successful films together. Radner’s reinvention, however, hits a wall when she is diagnosed with ovarian cancer. How she copes with this situation is quite poignant. Dapolito, thankfully, never makes it too sentimental or mawkish.
But mostly, Love, Gilda provides a terrific showcase for Radner’s humor. It is enjoyable to watch her physicality as she dances, clumsily, with Steve Martin, or shares an extended kiss with Bill Murray on SNL. There is just something inherently funny about how she can try to be all composed, and then, just look into the camera and make everyone crack up. Dapolito’s film is smile-inducing; it provides a sweet trip down memory lane for Radner’s longtime fans and will provide an appreciation for anyone who was oblivious to her comic charms.
Love, Gilda opens today at the Ritz Bourse.