Gilda Radner died 29 years ago – so the idea of making a meaningful documentary about her life seems inherently difficult. Too often, in situations like this, filmmakers with noble intentions will take on a subject like Gilda Radner and the result winds up being a lot of talking heads, mixed in with clips of that person’s most notable moments – which, in this case, would be Radner’s work on Saturday Night Live. But, what makes Lisa D’Apolito’s Love, Gilda special is that D’Apolito has a secret weapon: Gilda Radner herself.
Honestly, after watching Love, Gilda open up the 2018 Tribeca Film Festival at the Beacon Theater in New York on Wednesday night (with an emotional introduction by Tina Fey), I’m convinced that every famous person, who has even an inkling that they might be at all beloved, should write massive amounts of journal entries and leave recorded audio for any future filmmaker who may want to make a documentary one day. Because D’Apolito had books and books of Gilda Radner’s memories of college; why she started out on comedy; her thoughts on dating while also being a famous person on SNL; meeting Gene Wilder; and, sadly, her diagnosis with ovarian cancer that would end her life.
And, yes, there are talking heads in Love, Gilda. We see the likes of Lorne Michaels, Martin Short, Paul Shaffer, Laraine Newman and Chevy Chase talk about the person they knew. Then we have Amy Poehler, Bill Hader, Melissa McCarthy, Maya Rudolph and Cecily Strong talking about the person they wish they had known, how Radner influenced them, and reading from her journal. But the nice thing is none of them are really there to tell the story; they are there to enhance or add color to what Gilda Radner is already telling us. Love, Gilda is, mostly, a Gilda Radner documentary that feels like it’s being narrated by Gilda Radner.
For people who are fans of Gilda Radner, this can be an emotionally tough watch because we know how this all turns out. Watching a clip of her on SNL always comes with a sense of sadness because she always seems so full of pure “life,” only to be taken away too soon. And these clips were pretty amazing to watch at the Beacon, as the audience roared with approval with every Gilda Radner punchline.
Love, Gilda does a fantastic job of presenting the larger than life Gilda Radner as a human being. At times she’s happy; at other times she’s not. She loved being on SNL, until she didn’t anymore. (A particularly poignant moment is when Radner mentions in her journal that, while sick with cancer, she’d watch herself on SNL reruns to cheer herself up.) But what was always constant was her absolute need to make others laugh. And even here, in Love, Gilda she’s still making people laugh.
When I was young, I didn’t realize Radner was sick. I remember my mom explaining it to me when Radner made a guest appearance on It’s Garry Shandling’s Show as she made jokes about having cancer. I didn’t realize it at the time (as the film explores), but making jokes about having cancer had never really been done before, and of course it was Gilda Radner who first did it. Looking back, I’m sure my mom knew that moment was unusual, because then she had to have a discussion with me about the whole thing. I’m sure Radner’s appearance with Shandling led to a lot of important discussions. Sadly, that was Radner’s last television appearance.
Reviewing a documentary is difficult because, inherently, if a person is interested in the subject matter, there’s a good chance they will see it. And if they are not, well, then it’s a tougher sell. The life of Gilda Radner, for me, was an automatic “yes” as opposed to, say, a documentary about the Phillips screwdriver. (And I have no doubt there are people out there who would line up for a film about the Phillips screwdriver.) But after that hurdle, then the documentary needs to elevate the subject matter. A lot of times this leads to “cool graphics” or some weird, surreal way of telling the story. Often this happens if the material isn’t there. But in the case of Love, Gilda, it’s all there. Gilda Radner never knew Lisa D’Apolito, but Radner left the filmmaker one heck of a gift. And watching Gilda Radner perform is still a gift, and now she left us all one more.
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