Lisa D’Apolito’s documentary about Gilda Radner, who enjoyed a meteoric rise to stardom on “Saturday Night Live,” is as conventional as they come, but engaging simply because its subject was a delightful personality who died far too soon. “Love Gilda” covers Radner’s life at a brisk clip, offering a fine way for old fans to reacquaint themselves with her talent and younger viewers a nice introduction to it.
D’Apolito’s work was undoubtedly made much easier by the fact that Radner left behind scads of notebooks and tapes, many apparently done in preparation for writing her autobiographical memoir “It’s Always Something.” She uses plenty of excerpts from the tapes, but also has bits from the notebooks read by admirers like Amy Poehler, Maya Rudolph, Bill Hader and Melissa McCarthy, who offer their own personal appreciations as well.
Of course, she has also collected a great deal of other material. There are stills and home movies, for example, of Radner’s childhood in Detroit, where she was born in 1946 and, we learn, was close to her wealthy father and her mother persuaded a doctor to prescribe Dexedrine for her ten-year old daughter to help with weight control (Radner would battle eating disorders for most of her life). She also had a beloved nanny she called Dibby, whom she said, in an interview included here, she used as a model for her famous SNL character Emily (“Never mind”) Litella.
She went to the University of Michigan but dropped out to follow a boyfriend to Toronto, where she began her career in 1972 in a production of the musical “Godspell” alongside Martin Short, and the two became an on-and-off couple, as he remembers in a newly-shot interview. That led her to the city’s Second City troupe, a National Lampoon radio show, and ultimately SNL in 1975. D’Apolito offers a nice sample of her star-making work on that show through 1980, as well as reminiscences from producer-creator Lorne Michaels, writer Alan Zweibel, bandleader Paul Shaffer and a number of her co-stars like Chevy Chase and Laraine Newman. We also get excerpts from her 1979 one-woman Broadway show.
Radner’s post-SNL career, of course, was not nearly as successful, though her personal life took a very positive turn when she met actor Gene Wilder, with whom she appeared in Sidney Poitier’s “Hanky Panky” in 1982. A courtship followed, and the couple were married in 1984. Unhappily the 1986 movie they made together, “Haunted Honeymoon,” was a financial bust, and while filming it Radner began suffering the symptoms that would later result in a diagnosis of ovarian cancer.
Home movies of her and Wilder show her courageous battle with the illness, and excerpts from her television appearances show how dedicated she was to opening up the public discussion of the disease. After a succession of remissions and recurrences, Radner died in 1989, the same year that her memoir was published. The documentary concludes with footage of the founding and ongoing work of Gilda’s Club, the organization designed to provide support for cancer victims and their families founded in 1995. (D’Apolito’s work with the Club undoubtedly aided her effort to make this film.)
The result is a warm, affectionate tribute to a comic star whose light went out too soon, bringing together a wealth of archival material and contemporary accolades, all tied together in a fine package by D’Apolito and editors Anne Alvergue, David Cohen, and Kristen Nutile. For those of a certain age, it will be a joy to encounter Litella, Baba Wawa, Roseanne Roseannadanna and Lisa Loopner—as well as Radner herself—again. For newcomers unacquainted with Comedy Central reruns, it will be a revelation.