There’s a lot of information out there concerning the life and times of Gilda Radner, including her years on Saturday Night Live and her 1989 autobiography, It’s Always Something. The challenge for director Lisa Dapolito is to create a more intimate study.
Utilizing home movies and diary pages, Dapolito embarks on a psychological odyssey with Radner’s own thoughts driving the documentary, examining her fears and frustrations as the picture surveys numerous successes where the comedian’s brightness of spirit was the very thing that defined her stage appeal.
Love, Gilda is missing a few key perspectives here and there, but it’s a rounded understanding of Radner’s experience as she tried to navigate the demands of fame, the quest for love, and hope for inner peace.
Photo courtesy of Magnolia Pictures
Love, Gilda uses diaries and audiobook excerpts to give the late comedian a chance to speak for herself.
Dapolito gets past the traditional roster of talking heads with access to Radner’s diary, which offers unfiltered access to the subject’s thought process as she goes from a girl who wants to please the world to a woman who can’t summon the strength to simply be herself.
Dapolito uses Radner’s words to guide the story, at times silently highlighting passages, while excerpts from Radner’s audiobook for It’s Always Something are also employed, doing away with a narrator to give the comedian a chance to speak for herself.
There’s assistance from a collection of family, friends (including Paul Shaffer, Martin Short, and Alan Zweibel), and admirers (Amy Poehler, Melissa McCarthy, and Bill Hader), with some permitted a chance to handle Radner’s diaries, which are treated with a reverence usually reserved for holy text.
Love, Gilda tracks Radner’s youth in Detroit, where she enjoyed attention from her older father and often relied on food for comfort, establishing a troubling relationship with eating that carried throughout her life.
Radner’s anxieties are established and also pockets of comfort, including time with her nanny, Dibby, who would go on to inspire one of Radner’s most popular Saturday Night Live characters, Emily Litella.
Radner’s interest in performing develops in college, joining a theater group that helps to refine her timing and comfort. While Love, Gilda is mindful of Radner’s artistic impulses, tracking her growing confidence as a performer, there’s also an examination of her love of being in love, taking on numerous boyfriends but never quite getting what she wants, with her neediness often too powerful to sustain a functional relationship.
Dapolito is honest about Radner’s short attention span when it comes to men, discussing the topic with ex-lover Short, who identifies Rader’s warmth but also her insecurities and consuming quest to achieve perfection.
Radner graduates from children’s theater to the famous 1972 Canadian production of Godspell (also starring Short, Victor Garber, Andrea Martin, Dave Thomas, and Eugene Levy), soon emerging as a singular talent at Second City and National Lampoon, battling boys’ club sexism to showcase her skills with character.
While home movies are used to create visual evidence, it’s the fan footage of Radner performing that’s something to behold, offering glimpses of her time in the Lampoon, horsing around with pals Bill Murray and John Belushi, while clips from her 1979 Broadway show emphasize her struggle with self-worth, silly business providing a mask for Radner’s pain, which was exacerbated after shooting to fame on Saturday Night Live.
Love, Gilda goes into the Saturday Night Live years, grasping the seismic change in Radner’s universe, but the documentary shows just as much interest in her problematic love life, which led her to find some sense of peace with actor Gene Wilder, her frequent movie co-star and eventual husband. Private videos from their years together are startling, showing tight companionship that’s soon tested by an ovarian cancer diagnosis.
Medical battles and a confrontation with mortality make up the final act of Love, Gilda, providing an eyes-wide-open look at Radner’s ways of coping and healing, with her ultimate quest to “make cancer funny.”
Love, Gilda is essential viewing for fans of the comedian, but it’s also a compelling film for newcomers. Dapolito communicates a richly emotional experience, delivering a portrait of Radner that’s vividly human, detailed with chapters of uncertainty, love, and confession that reinforce Gilda Radner’s special legacy.