No movie can do justice to “Saturday Night Live” legend Gilda Radner, but Lisa D’Apolito’s funny, moving “Love, Gilda” sure comes close. Like a lot of celebrity biographies of late, revealing, autobiographical tape recordings provide the backbone in telling her story, which began in Detroit in 1946 and ended much too soon in Los Angeles in 1989. She was just 43, and as the film poignantly reminds, we didn’t just lose Gilda, we also had to say goodbye to household names like Lisa Loopner, Emily Litella, Judy Miller, Roseanne Roseannadanna and my favorite, Barbara Wawa.
They were all Gilda, but the depth and scope of how she created and developed those indelible characters speaks to the richness of not just her comedy, but how she could flesh out the humanity of women you not just laughed at, but also loved. They were as endearing as the woman playing them. But like all of history’s great clowns, there was a darkness hidden deep within. For Radner, it was rooted in body image. “I was 104 pounds and still felt fat,” she tells us via tapes made in preparation for writing her memoir, “It’s Always Something.” It was a demon that provides a through line for her life story, which is ironic considering just about every man she ever met was enraptured by her beauty.
Her ex-beaus -- and, yes, she namedrops — are a virtual comedy hall of fame: Brian Doyle-Murray; his brother, Bill, Radner’s “SNL” cast mate; Martin Short, with whom she co-starred in a Toronto production of “Godspell” in 1972; and, of course, Gene Wilder. She also mentions having seen “Ghostbusters” and getting a giggle out of the fact she dated almost the entire cast. But it was Wilder who emerged as her soulmate. Former “SNL” cohort Laraine Newman says, “She looked at him like a woman in love.”
You get the feeling D’Apolito could have built an entire movie around their relationship alone. And that’s her film’s only flaw: It’s too short to do her subject justice. But that’s also probably why “Love, Gilda” seems to glide by in a flash. It’s packed with information, insights and great anecdotes. And the family photos and home movies D’Apolito is given access to are priceless, especially the images of a pleasingly plump Gilda in her pre-adolescence, a time she admits spending almost entirely in front of the refrigerator, much to her mother’s chagrin. Henrietta, a beauty herself, wanted her daughter to be thin, even convincing a doctor to prescribe diet pills to Gilda when she was only 10. Again, it’s an aspect of Radner’s life D’Apolito could have filled an entire movie with.
Ditto for Radner’s years on “SNL,” where as a member of the original cast, she witnessed the rampant drug use, along with the brilliance of an incredibly innovative ensemble that was comedy’s version of The Beatles. And if John Belushi, her mentor, was its John Lennon, she was its Ringo Starr, the member who was the most popular, as well as the most underrated. And as we see in the too few clips from the show’s heyday, her brand of humor has lost nothing over the last 40 years. I often found myself bursting out in laughter over skits I’ve seen a dozen times before. But that’s how timeless Radner was.
Just ask “SNL” alum Amy Poehler, Maya Rudolph and Bill Hader, which D’Apolito does in addition to requesting them to read from Radner’s journal, which is like asking a rabbi to recite from the Dead Sea Scrolls. These are personal, sacred texts, and you almost feel like you’re prying just listening. But the words are fascinating, particularly Gilda’s love of comedy and how it not only shaped her life, but also enabled her to cope with a series of tragedies, from the death of her father when she was 14, to her miscarriage shortly after her marriage to Wilder, to her cancer diagnosis in 1986, when she watched old “SNL” clips to keep her smiling through debilitating chemo treatments. “Laughter was my comfort,” she says.
To D’Apolito’s credit, her film doesn’t dwell on the sadness. Rather, it’s a celebration of a performer who revolutionized comedy and inspired future generations like Hader and Poehler. You can even see much of Radner’s influence in current “SNL” MVP Kate McKinnon. But don’t be surprised if you leave the theater fighting tears, especially when you hear her reflecting on the cruel irony of learning she was dying just when she was learning to live after marrying Wilder.
It’s wrenching seeing her in those final days, much of it caught on film; shot because she wanted people to see the power of humor in coping with something as devastating as stage IV cancer. It’s powerful stuff that lives on in the form of the 17 Gilda Clubs across the nation that counsel and assist women with the disease. Nothing funny there, but it sure as heck makes you grin, as does this lovely tribute to an icon who refused to be a martyr in favor of helping woman like herself find happiness in the face of death.
A documentary by Lisa D’Apolito featuring Gilda Radner, Bill Hader, Laraine Newman, Martin Short, Chevy Chase, Lorne Michaels and Paul Shaffer.