Film Review: Love, Gilda

All the laughs—as well as the tears—in the too-brief but shining life of a true comic genius are present and accounted for in this essential, intensely moving doc.
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Crazed, catatonic punk rocker Candy Slice, inspired by Patti Smith; the “r”-challenged Baba Wawa; endearingly goofy schoolgirl Lisa Loopner, and the immortal Roseanne Roseannadanna of the horrendous Cleo perm and obsession with all things gross. And then there was querulous little old news lady Emily Litella, forever getting it wrong about the “presidential erection” or “endangered feces,” and ubiquitously following up the correction with her patentedly sweet “Never mind.” All of these hilarious ladies resided in the body and mind of one person, Gilda Radner, a comic presence so potent that she was the first castmate chosen and—along with Chevy Chase—the first to break out as star of the first season of “Saturday Night Live,” her characters and their catchphrases becoming integral, indelible cultural touchpoints of the 1970s.

I saw her in person once, introducing the animated Disney Jungle Book at the Museum of Modern Art. I was charmed by her ingratiating personality and lovably witty urchin’s face, but was struck by how exceedingly thin she was. The reason for that is provided in Lisa D’Apolito’s affectionate, respectful and incisive bio-doc, Love, Gilda. Like so many of the funniest people, Radner had an ironic dark side having to do with self-image. A chubby child, she was given amphetamines, and bulemically purged food throughout much of her tragically short life, something she kept secret.

D’Apolito had access to Radner’s copious personal diaries, portions of which are read by subsequent “SNL”cast members, Bill Hader, Amy Poehler, Cecily Strong, Maya Rudolph and oftime guest Melissa McCarthy with a mixture of awe and heartbreak. But one of the most astonishing of the many astonishing things about the film is that Radner actually narrates much of her own life (through tapes the director discovered and painstakingly pieced together, as some were quite damaged). A clear and quite poignant portrait emerges of a fragile yet fiercely determined woman, who—as the title would indicate—craved love above all. She managed to get it, too, although challenges abounded, from her own personal insecurities to showbiz’s vicissitudes and the ovarian cancer she was diagnosed with in 1987, which horrifically took her life at age 42.

In her search for love, she cut quite a wide swath, with Martin Short and Dan Aykroyd just two of the many, often-famous guys who fell under her spell. (A cast photo is shown, and someone remembers Radner remarking that she’d slept with all the men pictured.) A brief marriage to “SNL” musician G.E. Smith was followed by a lasting one to Gene Wilder, who sequestered her in Californian—sometimes Parisian—luxury, effectively removing her from the maelstrom of the entertainment world and remaining steadfastly by her side during her illness. They both became brave and honest advocates of cancer treatment and therapy and, to that purpose, Wilder co-founded a chain of relevant Gilda’s Clubs before his own death from the disease in 2016.

Her life certainly ran the gamut, from the dizzying heights of her “SNL” celebrity, in which the original cast attained Beatles-like popularity with all of its attendant madness, to making jokes on her hospital bed about cancer being an elite club of which she wished she wasn’t a member. And although her TV-comedy reign only lasted five years—admittedly, years in which she worked like a dog for producer Lorne Michaels, one of the many interviewees here—her talent is every bit as recognized and immortal as that of Lucille Ball, Carol Burnett, Mary Tyler Moore and all those Golden Girls. And, because of her brilliant originality, physical fearlessness and that certain evanescent yet real quality of hipness, she is this writer’s personal favorite among them all and will always remain so.