Love, Gilda, a documentary about the life and way-too-early death of “Saturday Night Live” cast member Gilda Radner, is almost too easy a subject to make a film about. Naturally, anyone with an interest in the show, the history of American comedy, the early days of Second City or a peek into Gilda’s private life (shared with husband Gene Wilder) will appreciate this one.
And while Love, Gilda gives insight into all of those things, it also leaves a few gaps that were probably necessary to get her family’s approval of and cooperation for the movie. Still, the details are tremendous, especially the impressive amount of archival video and audio on Radner, including her earliest years in sketch comedy and her time with a Toronto comedy troupe that included pretty much the entire cast of SCTV, including her on again/off again boyfriend Martin Short.
The film deals openly and honestly with her struggles with weight—she was heavy as a child and anorexic as a woman—her issues with falling in love a bit too easily, and her long and brutal struggles with cancer, which eventually killed her at the age of only 42. Not a criticism of the film at all, but when it ends, it feels like there’s a missing final chapter to a life and career that should have been so much longer.
It’s possible just to sit back and enjoy the many moments where it’s clear that Radner had a fearlessness and originality to her comedic style that is tough to put into words but is so clearly evident on the screen. A host of modern comic actors (Amy Poehler, Maya Rudolph, Cecily Strong, Bill Hader and Melissa McCarthy) give testimonials as to Radner’s power and influence, and even read passages from her sometimes brutally honest journals. Poehler even makes it clear that, while at SNL, she wrote sketches after watching old episodes with Radner just to figure out what made certain bits so funny. And while these interviews certainly add a star quality to the film, they are disposable for the most part.
Recent interviews with Radner contemporaries and co-workers (Short, Chevy Chase, Laraine Newman, Lorne Michaels, and Paul Shaffer) are far more relevant and illuminating. I was particularly interested in the section of Love, Gilda that deals with her one-woman Broadway show, which was both a hit and something that made her realize it wasn’t something she ever wanted to do again. But it is her marriage to Wilder that is handled quite nicely here, thanks largely to unseen home movies and a stark honesty provided by her close friends and family members who surrounded her during the times when she was most ill. She and Wilder made a couple of terrible movies together, and the response was so bad that it drove her into a type of isolation.
There are a couple of moments in the film, directed by Lisa Dapolito (making her feature debut), where the emotions run so deep and Radner’s energy is still so high that it breaks you right down the middle. Naturally, the SNL segments are the most reliably entertaining, as you would expect a tour into the creator of Emily Litella and Roseanne Roseannadanna would be. But it’s also amusing to hear about how many relationships she had with cast members, writers and others on the show—so much so that she said it was hard to watch Ghostbusters because most of the cast were ex-boyfriends.
In Love, Gilda, Radner is portrayed as frequently lonely, creative and somewhat unprepared for the level of stardom she achieved so young. There are a few unanswered questions (such as the implication that Wilder “ran” the marriage to a degree), but what’s here is thorough, revealing and wildly entertaining.
The film opens today at the Landmark Century Centre Cinema.
Did you enjoy this post? Please consider supporting Third Coast Review’s arts and culture coverage by becoming a patron. Choose the amount that works best for you, and know how much we appreciate your support!