Love, Gilda: Yes, We Did!

Love, Gilda (2018)
Directed by Lisa Dapolito
Magnolia Pictures, 86 minutes, Not-Rated

From time to time extraordinary ensembles arise—a successful sports team, the perfect symphonic orchestra, an office that runs itself…. These moments are sublime and, generally, short-lived, but they sure are special while they last. The 1975 original cast of Saturday Night Live was such a troupe: Dan Aykroyd, John Beluschi, Chevy Chase, George Coe, Jane Curtin, Garrett Morris, Laraine Newman, Michael O’Donoghue, and Gilda Radner (1946-1989). And when producer Lorne Michaels assembled it, Radner was the first person he hired.

Love, Gilda has a tragic ending—Radner died of ovarian cancer shy of her 43rd birthday—yet director Lisa Dapolito’s documentary feels joyful. That’s because Ms Radner was the ultimate shooting star whose brilliance lit up the sky before fading. Who can forget the characters she inhabited: Baba Wawa, Emily Litella, Lisa Loopner, Roseanne Roseannadanna…. Dapolito’s documentary skirts a few issues on her way to a celebratory portrait, but she captures Radner’s magic and keeps us smiling right down to the bitter end.

Radner was born into comfortable circumstances, a successful Detroit Jewish family that employed a white nanny, “Dibby,” who was Gilda’s inspiration for Emily Litella. Gilda was a ham at an early age, though there were also hardships along the way, including losing her beloved father at an early age. A lot of people know that Radner suffered from bulimia as an adult; it may surprise to learn it was compensation for being a pudgy child and teen. Being picked on is a textbook path to comedy. Strike first to take the starch out of the bullies!

Dapolito doesn’t give much insight into the specifics of how Gilda gained and lost control over eating, as she pretty much skips from childhood home movies to the 1960s, when Radner dropped out of the University of Michigan to follow a boyfriend to Toronto. There she joined a sketch comedy group that would later form part of the nucleus of SNL’s Not Ready for Prime Time Players. Several others came via her next project, working with the National Lampoon Radio Hour.

Lorne Michaels chose Radner as his first SNL hire because she was simply funny to her core. Amy Poehler appears on screen and confesses that much of her own early career involved channeling Gilda. Melissa McCarthy and Cecily Strong speak earnestly of how any woman who was ever a SNL cast member knew that Gilda was the gold standard against which she’d be judged. In a similar vein, Chevy Chase and Bill Murray note how just being on camera with Radner made them appear funnier. She was also a brilliant physical comic, a trait that often enhanced fairly lame material. Dapolito includes a sketch that's the ultimate illustration of this: a Radner/Steve Martin lampoon of Fred Astaire and Cyd Charisse as if Astaire was a maniac and Charisse a complete klutz. It’s complete slapstick, yet it’s masterful and hysterical.

The film concentrates on Radner’s SNL years (1975-80) and her 1979 one-woman Broadway show Gilda Radner-Live from New York. As such things tend to go, the original SNL cast began to fall apart. Aykroyd and Beluschi did the Blues Brothers (over Michaels’ rabid objections) and made a few successful films before Beluschi OD'ed in 1982. Radner’s career was not as successful. Her first marriage collapsed before the ink was dry on the certificate. She tried her hand at a few plays, and made several films that bombed, including several with her second husband, Gene Wilder. She wasn’t very good at being a non-celebrity civilian either, but once she contracted cancer, she became an inspiration for millions. Dapolito's use of Radner's letters takes us inside of her changing career and moods.

There’s only so much one can stick into a short documentary. Though we indeed wish to remember Radner fondly and accentuate the positive, Dapolito is guilty of making a hagiography. There’s nary a mention of how SNL was fueled by cocaine, nor of Lorne Michaels’ meddling introduced the cast to the serpent of disharmony. We see nothing of Radner’s raunchier material from her one-woman show.

Dapolito trapped herself within a chronological biographical arc. Gilda’s battle with cancer was courageous and deserves to be spun that way, but it was of course, a final battle. It would have been inappropriate to dwell on Radner’s demons given how the film must end within such a frame.  More adventurous filmmaking would have given Dapolito leeway that could have actually made Radner more human and less iconic. The thing about true hagiographies is that even saints struggle before they achieve grace.

For all of that, Gilda Radner was a unique talent and Dapolito’s film is very welcome reminder of it. It’s also a trip down Memory Lane, to a time in which the perfect storm blew in a perfect cast.

Rob Weir

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