Lisa D’Apolito’s documentary, Love, Gilda, is a tribute to one of America’s most ingenious comics, Gilda Radner (1946-1989), AKA Roseanne Rosannadanna, Emily Litella, Judy Miller and Baba Wawa, the latter inspired by Barbara Walters. Best known as one of the original cast of Saturday Night Live, Radner often invented her characters and their monologues along with SNL writers Rosie Shuster and Alan Zweibel. Producer Lorne Michaels confesses that when he had an odd four minutes in the show, too short a time for another skit, he would fill it with Radner’s talent for improvisation. The 102-pound, 5' 6" performer would recall what she ate that day. With her engaging smile and an undeniably girlish quality that endeared her to women and men, Radner made the audience laugh each time she recited that list.
The sad fact is that Radner suffered from an eating disorder and was underweight most of her adult life. As a child, she was fat, as director D’Apolito makes apparent through home movies and family photographs; when the performer was 10 years old, her mother, concerned about her overeating, consulted a doctor who put Radner on diet pills. The documentary deftly chronicles the comic’s girlhood in Detroit through images and brief interviews with her siblings. The last child born to an affluent family, she was a “daddy’s girl.” One of the great losses of the comic’s life was the death of her father when she was 14. These stories and many others in Love, Gilda unfold in Radner’s words, and often in her own voice. D’Apolito received permission from the Radner estate to mine the performer’s personal journals and audiotapes, as well as never-before-seen footage and pictures. When Radner’s voice is not heard, lines or entire pages from her journals appear onscreen.
Also in the mix are Radner’s television appearances; in one clip, she explains that Emily Litella is based on her family governess and “best friend,” and in another she sings a song from Godspell. Radner was in the 1972 Toronto production of the musical. The television footage is from The David Letterman Show, and it featured Paul Shaffer, also a Godspell alumnus, conducting the orchestra. As a friend remarks, Radner had a rather mediocre voice, but her charismatic presence onstage was unmistakable. The performer had been living in Canada, as she explains in the film, because she quit college in 1969 to live with a Canadian sculptor; the relationship soured when she realized she missed her college drama studies. In a humorous scene in which her brother Michael Radner peruses an old photo album, there are a series of photos from those days of Radner’s many boyfriends.
Near the beginning of Love, Gilda, Radner speaks about the role her art played in her life: “Because I am not a perfect example of my gender,” she says, “I decided to be funny.” Other remarks echo that fragility, including long-time friend Martin Short’s observation that “comedy allowed her to control things.” Radner admits in one passage that she is very needy in her intimate relationships; in one journal entry, she asks herself if she will ever again recapture the love that she felt from her father. The era of Radner’s fame coincided with the rise of the women’s liberation movement, and while it is clear that she was not an ardent feminist, D’Apolito opens her documentary with the 1975 sexual harassment skit led by Lily Tomlin in which Radner appeared. The filmmaker’s point is well-taken: Lucille Ball, who greatly influenced Radner, might now be admired as a proto-feminist, but equally important to her genius and that of Radner’s, is the status that they achieved. Their success paved the way for women comics.
Love, Gilda is a comprehensive biodoc, and an entertaining one, although the score, from the insistent drumbeats of the first frame, is omnipresent and mixed too loudly. While D’Apolito achieves what she set out to do in a very promising debut feature, which is chronicle the life of a woman she clearly admires, what may not be apparent to younger audiences is the versatility and depth of Radner’s comedy. Few clips of Radner in character, and the brevity of other clips, fail to represent the scope of her unique cast of misfits. In one delightful passage in the documentary, the comic succinctly explains how each of them represents some part of herself. Lisa Loopner, she muses, is the part that “doesn’t care what she looks like.”
Radner did care most of the time, but not at the end, when the ovarian cancer she thought was in remission returned, and she allowed herself to be filmed in the hospital. In archival footage, her husband, Gene Wilder, is seen carrying Radner’s Yorkie, Sparkle, who appeared earlier in a mockumentary about their home. He growls at the camera as it closes in on Radner’s bed. The sequence emphasizes the fact that Radner’s legacy is not just artistic; D’Apolito suggests that she may have been the first performer to openly address her disease in a humorous way. In a clip from The Gary Shandling Show, before her relapse, Radner is asked what has kept her out of the spotlight for so long. She replies: “I had cancer. What did you have?”
Love, Gilda is currently playing at the Tribeca Film Festival through April 26th.