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


Catch Ogunquit Art Exhibits Now!

Just 2 Weeks Left to See 2018 Season at the OMAA
Through October 31, 2018

The leaves are turning, which means the doors will soon be closing for the season at the Ogunquit Museum of American Art (OMAA) in Ogunquit, Maine. It's one of my favorite small museums, as it showcases exhibits unlike those you'd see at a larger institution. Three caught my eye this year.

Click on images for bigger files.

Lois Dodd: Drawings and Paintings casts light on a lesser known but highly respected modernist. Born in 1927, Ms Dodd was among the mid-century New Yorkers who drew inspiration from both the boroughs and the coast of Maine. Now 91, Dodd still occasionally creates from her homes in New York and Lincolnville, Maine. The OMAA show includes some 21st century work, but the bulk is from the 1950s and 1960s. Sometimes it has a "dated" feel, but because Dodd is unfamiliar to most, she's worth exploring.

Dodd intrigues because she's hard to pigeonhole. Her paintings are often open and flat in perspective, and she uses geometrical shapes that skirt the line between realism and abstraction. An oil titled Chickens (1957) is true to its title, but it looks like cubism collided with a paint spill. The same effects can be seen in a simple look at laundry hanging from a line. 

A more recent work Four Nudes and a Woodpile (2001) is a Gauguin-like feminist take on Lunch on the Grass (Manet).  And Dodd's naked ladies are busy working on their winter fuel supply, not posing for the male gaze. My favorite, though, is one I call "Loose Moose"—her title is simply Moose—a collage of colors and shapes that define the beast. It's childlike in its wonderment, but artisanal in assembly.  


The most provocative work of the summer is Boundaries, a collaboration between photographer Jacob Bond Hessler and poet Richard Blanco. Each photo comes with a side poem and theirs is an unabashed political statement about the Big Four social categories: class, gender, race, and ethnicity.   

Hessler's photos are strongly evocative. Do you think borders are rational? Take a look at Hessler's shot of the narrow Rio Grande River as it threads its way through a remote slot canyon. It's no wider than my driveway and easily waded. But if think a wall is a good idea, look hard into Hessler's Tijuana/San Diego divide. It looks more like a prison than the dividing line between two sovereign nations, a reminder that all such lines are political fiction.   

Hessler's work is strongest in Boundaries when he is at his most literal. Many of the other shots explore metaphorical boundaries or require foreknowledge of the subject matter—for example an empty street that you need to know was where a lynching once took place. It is said that a picture is worth a thousand words, but Richard Blanco's poems throw that adage into doubt. If you ignore wall text when you're in a museum, this would be a good time to break that habit. Blanco, a gay Latino, was the youngest poet to read at a presidential inauguration. Blanco's "Burning in the Rain" makes the soul weep. Blanco wears his worldview on his sleeve, but what a glorious raiment.   


Wood Gaylor
The View from Narrow Cove is simultaneously the OMAA's largest exhibit, its most conventional, and its most diverse. The art world often wars against itself. In each age there is art that critics and patrons treat as fashionable, but also outliers who rail against the fashion du jour. Outsiders, like misery, love company. For every formal school of art, you can find artist "colonies" where the outlaws gather. Ogunquit became such a place when Charles Woodbury moved there in 1888, and painted oils that Victorian elites didn't like.

Soon, a summer art school opened for those bored with society and salon painting. Some of the artists aligned with the Ash Can school, which favored gritty realism; others with avant-garde modernists and abstract expressionists. And so it went. The only constant is that most wanted to do anything other than what was en vogue in the moment.

It's not easy to display fungible principles. One of art's great ironies is that a lot of rebellious art gets "discovered" and becomes the new convention that future artists will reject. Keep this in mind, because a lot of The View from Narrow Cove might not strike you as outside the mainstream. It once was!

The most obvious thumb in the eye of convention is Wood Gaylor's whimsical Arts Ball (1921), a Roaring 20s Bacchanal that's equal parts burlesque, masked ball, and critique of the arts establishment.

Rockwell Kent
Vincent Canade
Rockwell Kent's Alaskan Sunrise (1919) is clearly in line with Canada's Group of Eight painters, especially Lawren Harris. Let's just say that Kent's landscape is miles from how Hudson River luminists interpreted nature, not to mention how it would have startled the early 20th century stuffed and stifled middle class, which preferred tranquil park-like scenes. Marsden Hartley's bold look at snowy Mount Katahdin would have similarly baffling, as would the dreamy muted trees of Vincent Canadé, whose forest looks a bit like crystal rock candy in the early process of being consumed. 
Marsden Hartley

Bernard Langlais
Antonio Mattei was a neo-primitivist whose very style defied that of academically trained artists. His take on Maine village life is meant to be evocative, not photographic. There is also a superb painting from Jacob Lawrence in which he puts an African American spin on Matisse cutout, and Bernard Langlais, who chucked his formal training in favor of offbeat folk art sculpting. My favorite image, though, was Will Barnet's charcoal Emily Dickinson: Poem #1101. It's not Ms Dickinson, rather an evocation of Penelope that's linked to a Dickinson poem. The female figure looks away from us, her expression enigmatic, and brushes her hair. For me, it was as like a Pre-Raphaelite in the hands of a Japanese master. I was transfixed! 

Will Barnet

Rob Weir  


The Wife: Thin Material Redeemed by Great Acting

The Wife (2017/18)
Directed by Bjorn Runge
Sony Pictures Classics, 100 minutes, R (language)
★★★ ½

Among the immutable laws of the film universe are that great actors can transform lackluster scripts and, secondly, Smith College is a go-to surrogate for scenarios involving smart young women making foolish choices.

By the time you read this The Wife probably won’t be playing at a theater near you. That’s a safe prediction, as it’s unlikely it ever did in the first place. There are three very compelling reasons, however, to see this film on DVD or download: Glenn Close as Joan Castleman, Jonathan Pryce as ageing Professor Joe Castleman, and Annie Starke as young Joan.

Most of the story—based on a Meg Wolitzer novel—centers on the Castlemans in their twilight years. They are parents of a daughter, Susannah (Alix Wilton Regan in a brief role), and tormented son David (Max Irons).  Paterfamilias Joe has an ego the size of Sweden that further inflates when he, Joan, and David are flown to Stockholm so that Joe can collect his Nobel Prize for literature. The latter two don’t wish to go, but we quickly learn that Joe is a bit of a bully who passively manipulates Joan through treacly pleas, and browbeats David, an aspirant author with low self-esteem. Joe is also abusive to journalist Nathaniel Bone (Christian Slater), who yearns to be his biographer. A big event such as winning a Nobel Prize is, of course, the perfect setting for revelations.

Director Bjorn Runge highlights two overlapping narratives of the Castleman marriage. In flashback sequences we meet 28-year-old Joe (played by Harry Lloyd) in his first marriage and in the role of teaching literature to a late 1950s classroom of Smith College students. We can see he’s mostly puffery, but Joe dons tweed, clenches a pipe in this mouth, savages student papers, and expostulates high-toned generalities about tortured writers to a class of gobsmacked Smithies. But he is struck by a story submitted by young Joan (Starke), though he tells her she must “go deeper.” Joan’s voice is stymied further when an acclaimed female writer—Elizabeth McGovern in a cameo—acidly remarks that women writers are not taken seriously and that pursuing a literary career isn’t worth the anguish. We watch as Joan goes from serious student to babysitter to mistress to second wife. In the last role, she is basically the handmaiden that allows Joe to be Joe.

Joan is an extension of Meg Wolitzer’s ego. Wolitzer has been outspoken about what she sees as sexist standards that don’t take women seriously enough to award them big prizes. She’s undoubtedly correct about that, though her angling to be the one who breaks the barrier will require her to write a book better than any she has written thus far. Wolitzer’s oeuvre consists of a several perfectly fine books (The Wife, The Interestings, The Female Persuasion), but none has been of the quality of the dozen women who have won literature Nobels, nor the dozens who’ve won National Book Awards. Wolitzer is a ghostly character haunting The Wife but the truth is, the script based on Wolitzer’s novel is among the film’s weaknesses.    

To elucidate that point, The Wife is more of a short play than a movie. We only enjoy it as a film because of the strength of three fine actors. This film might be Annie Starke’s breakout role for the silver screen. Her skillful depiction of young Joan Castleman is a dance between naivety, vulnerability, and simmering disgust. She makes unwise decisions at several junctures, yet we understand how an incompletely formed personality might do so. As for Glenn Close, what more can one say about an actress who has won a whopping 44 major awards? In The Wife one admires her steely resolve, the way she toys with Nathaniel Bone as a cat would a mouse, and her kettle boil anger. I also suggest you watch her closely. Ms. Close has one of the great plastic faces of all time; simply by the way she tilts her head she can appear older or younger, haggard or maturely beautiful. (Can anyone forget the astonishing scene of Close removing her makeup in Dangerous Liaisons?”) Jonathan Pryce, whose chops were honed in theater, is just a step behind Close. It’s no easy task to imbue a bombastic character with likable qualities. If we view his Joe through Joan’s eyes, you can fully understand why Joan embraces the playful fool one moment and wants to throw him under a bus the next.

It’s hard to imagine this would be a very good film if we took away Starke, Close, or Pryce. The proof is in the secondary characters. Although Slater is fine as the oily Nathaniel Bone, the rest of the cast is, to be charitable, mediocre. This is especially the case with Lloyd and Irons, each of whom is as wooden as an old growth forest. McGovern does what the script demands, but her role is on the edge of being over the top. There are decided script weaknesses, not the least of which is that Wolitzer has dumbed down Smith College students to get us to the Joan/Joe nuptials. One wonders how Joan could be lured into thinking women shouldn’t write, given that Natalie Babbitt, Sylvia Plath, and Jane Yolen were among the literary lights that attended Smith in the 1950s. (Is it worth mentioning that Meg Wolitzer attended Smith, but transferred after her sophomore year?)

Despite my reservations, you should watch it for three performances as crisp as a handpicked Golden Delicious apple. As for the narrative, you might see its major reveal coming, but it still packs a wallop. My biggest frustration is that this is good film that could have been better. Sound familiar?

Rob Weir