Starts today in the Triangle at the Alamo Drafthouse Cinema in Raleigh:
LOVE GILDA (Dir. Lisa D’Apolito, 2018)
Former actress Lisa D’Apolito’s full length feature debut is a fine primer to the life and career of comedy goddess Gilda Radner (1946-1989), who as we hear the voice of David Letterman say at the outset “was the very first chosen for the cast of Saturday Night Live.” But while it works as an overview for newcomers to Radner, folks who grew up with the woman’s work may find that it glosses over too many details to really be the thorough and essential portrait that she deserves.
Largely narrated by Radner herself via audiotapes she had recorded while writing her 1989 autobiography “It’s Always Something,” and various interviews; LOVE GILDA touchingly also features some of her many modern day disciples such as Amy Poehler, Maya Rudolph, Bill Hader, and Melissa McCarthy reading from her diaries.
As images of Radner and her notebook handwriting animatedly fill the screen, we see her go from being a chubby kid living in Detroit that loved to play act (“I’d be glued to the television, and then I’d go act out things like it in the backyard”) to becoming a stage performer in Toronto getting her first major job in a 1972 production of the religious musical “Godspell,” the cast of which included Eugene Levy, Andrea Martin, Dave Thomas, Martin Short, and Paul Shaffer.
After stints in the Second City improvisational troupe, and the National Lampoon Radio Hour, Radner’s big break was, of course, joining the line-up of NBC’s Saturday Night Live in 1975.
Along the way we see that Gilda dated a lot – she once complained that it was hard to watch GHOSTBUSTERS because she had dated each of its three leads – Bill Murray, Dan Aykroyd, and Harold Ramis. She also had an on again/off again relationship with Martin Short in the pre-SNL days (Paul Shaffer: “They were some form of power couple, but it was comedy power”). Her brief first marriage to rock guitarist G.E. Smith goes by in a blur.
Montages of clips from her SNL appearances, merge with many photos of her from the era set to a bouncy disco beat as this was the glitzy late ‘70s entertainingly enough, but when the film comes to Radner’s one woman Broadway show it doesn’t give enough context. As many SNL folks were involved, the production was seen by many to be a competitive effort towards her fellow cast members Aykroyd and John Belushi’s Blues Brothers project to the point in which Paul Shaffer had to choose sides and lost out being in THE BLUES BROTHERS movie.
But this isn’t discussed in this biodoc, nor is that the resulting record and film, GILDA LIVE, flopped. Except for HANKY PANKY, the comic thriller that she made with later husband Gene Wilder in 1982, her film career isn’t given much space either. But in a 90 minute biodoc that’s understandable as her filmography wasn’t that stellar and ended on a sad note with her second collaboration with Wilder, HAUNTED HONEYMOON being a critically lambasted dud.
The last third of the film, dealing with Radner’s fight with ovarian cancer, is unsuprisingly quite sad. If hearing her on tape begging for her health, and bemoaning the loss of her hair doesn’t get you, the video she had made of one of her chemo sessions in which she is as chipper as she can be surely will. Even in the middle of such severe circumstances, Gilda could still come alive and light up a room on camera.
As it’s filled with so many pretty pictures, loving memories, and funny footage of Radner, there’s a lot to love in LOVE, GILDA even if it doesn’t go as deep as this comedy geek would’ve liked. I don’t know if I was hoping for the intense lengthy examination that Judd Apatow did for Garry Shandling (HBO’S THE ZEN DIARIES OF GARRY SHANDLING) or what *, but what the woman contributed to pop culture certainly could stand up to that sort of scrutiny.
But the takeaway from this film is that it finds Gilda to be forever adorable, and, despite the tragedy of her death at 42, D’Apolito’s biodoc offers ample evidence that she had a blast making people laugh throughout her all too short life.
*Radner’s last major appearance was actually on It’s Garry Shandling’s Show in 1988.