Young audiences connect with icons of the past through digital mediums. We hunt for old clips of grainy footage, we scour Wikipedia pages for life stories and we tweet gifs that capture a snapshot of personality. By this metric, it’s fair to argue that Gilda Radner, the gone-too-soon SNL star and comedic genius of the 1970s and ’80s, is still making us laugh all these years later. A simple YouTube search of her name will reveal dozens of videos with millions of combined views, her beloved SNL character creations boast their own individual Wikipedia pages, and countless comedic voices of today point to her as their foundational inspiration.
Judy Miller, Emily Litella, Roseanne Roseannadanna; these were not only hilarious figures carefully composed by her capacious mind, but seemingly extensions of her inner self. Childish, sardonic, warm, one major component of Radner was always put forth to center stage for the whole world to see and enjoy. For a short while every week, she belonged to the people.
No, scratch that; she gave herself to the people.
Love, Gilda, Lisa D’Apolito’s touching documentary about Gilda Radner, which opened this year’s Tribeca Film Festival, explores the star’s roots in comedy and her endless growth as a performer—from her ground-breaking and hay-making days with National Lampoon to her SNL breakout and her one-woman Broadway show—while also asking the question of where all of this creative magic came from.
Rarely has a performer ever endeared herself to viewers quite like Radner. John Belushi was a tornado of comedy, leveling everything in his path, Eddie Murphy was a sharp wunderkind who dazzled with his capabilities; but Love, Gilda looks at how audiences across the country fell in love with Radner. She was a celebrity, yes, but she seemed to feel like a friend first and foremost.
Nowhere was that more evident than during the Tribeca Film Festival’s official opening, with welcoming remarks from founders Robert De Niro and Jane Rosenthal, a speech from D’Apolito, and a moving introduction from Tina Fey, who became emotional twice while trying to explain what Radner meant to a generation of female comics.
While Fey does not appear in the film, many of her SNL peers do, from Martin Short and Chevy Chase to contemporaries such as Amy Poehler, Maya Rudolph and Bill Hader. But what gives Love, Gilda an extra step is its personal touch; many of the interviewees read directly from Radner’s handwritten journals and much of the documentary is narrated by audiotapes recorded by Radner herself. She’s driving the narrative of her own life.
But as we now know today, that life was not always a Hollywood story.
As the first female breakout of Saturday Night Live and a national sensation of the ’70s, Radner felt compelled to maintain a thin figure, especially after years of mockery early on in her life as a bigger child. This resulted in an eating disorder and Love, Gilda does not shy away from her bulimia, but one thing that becomes apparent is that Radner’s struggle with food never defined her. It never dimmed the overwhelming force that was her. The film tackles the subject head-on and reveals a woman who endured the lows and soared through the highs, including the ovarian cancer that would tragically end her life at 42.
So often we become swept up in the narrative of the tortured artist, and while Radner’s life was not without its heartbreak, she was known for her upbeat demeanor and infectious uproarious laughter. Her beaming qualities were like an invitation to enjoy the moment with her, a quality Love, Gilda captures and bottles.
But Love, Gilda, like its subject, is not perfect.
While Short admits to being “unsophisticated enough” not to recognize her pain during their relationship in the early years, the documentary does not feature Bill Murray, whom Radner also dated during her SNL days. His absence, as well as several notable SNL cast members of the time, leaves you feeling as if some aspects of the star’s life were papered over thinly here. At a brisk 86 minutes, we get a sense of her major moments, but not the deep dive someone of her stature deserves.
The story would have benefitted with more focus on her yearning for children with husband Gene Wilder, a blossoming relationship that is handled by D’Apolito with acute care, and her time at The Wellness Center. One of the driving factors behind Wilder’s creation of Gilda’s Club was Radner’s admitted unease around healthy people during her struggle with cancer. Near the end, she felt most comfortable with others fighting the disease and felt she could do the most good in these circles, a fascinating revelation that could benefit from further exploration. It’s not that the documentary skips over these aspects, but the film rightly positions her SNL stardom as its center, leaving these later threads to be sorted out a bit too quickly.
In the end, however, Love, Gilda is a touching reminder of an iridescent star who shined brightly but for far too short a time. You’ll laugh, you’ll cry and you’ll leave the theater wanting to dive down the YouTube rabbit hole of Gilda Radner. (Start: here, here or here). More than 40 years later, she’s still making us laugh.