Gilda Radner shone on camera. When she popped onstage, she looked as though she might burst out laughing at any moment, her cheeks framed by elliptic creases, her eyes squeezed tight by the breadth of her smile. Wading through the ocean of archival footage she left behind, it’s evident that Radner was born to perform.
This makes it all the more baffling that no filmmaker has heretofore created a documentary about the late star’s life. The source material is all there: Radner exploded into stardom as a founding member of Saturday Night Live, where she spent six years before a depressive bout of bulimia. When she met Gene Wilder on set in the early 1980s, she divorced her husband for him, igniting a passionate and well-publicized romance until her death, at age 43, from ovarian cancer in 1989.
So the big question lingers: why make this movie now? It could be that our political climate is ripe for a Radner reflection. Amidst women sharing #MeToo stories and taking down Hollywood titans, and a surging backlash against the straight, white men who’ve long dominated the media, first-time director Lisa Dapolito has crafted a creative, energized, emotional tribute to the late comedic queen.
In its first minutes, Love, Gilda positions Radner as an almost prescient feminist icon. Her personal diaries, lovingly repurposed as the film’s narrative spine, reveal that she never worried much about the ubiquitous male gaze. “Because I’m not a perfect example of my gender,” she wrote, “I decided to be funny about what I didn’t have, instead of worrying about it.”
Nonetheless, she was long plagued by society’s expectations of stereotypical beauty. At age 10, her mother, believing Radner to be fat, insisted she take diet pills. Over time, she would indeed lose a fair amount of weight, eventually culminating in an eating disorder that became apparent long before “bulimia” was a common term.
Radner transformed these dark thoughts into comedy, which she described as “hittin’ on the truth before the other guy thinks of it.” Yet her style was only occasionally self-deprecating. She became famous for her caricatures on SNL, where she played characters like Roseanne Roseannadanna and Emily Litella, which challenged traditional notions of femininity.
Her characters, she confides in the film, were an extension of herself: unapologetic, irregular, bombastic and very funny. Early in her career, after arriving in Toronto and making a name for herself with John Candy, Eugene Levy and Joe Flaherty at The Second City comedy club, John Belushi invited her to join Bill Murray and Dan Aykroyd at the National Lampoon troupe.
Radner would gleefully appear onstage alongside the comedic heavyweights, but her womanhood denied her entry to their clubhouse: they never wrote sketches for her, often wasting her talents on bit parts like waitresses and secretaries. Behind the scenes, she enjoyed romantic flings with almost everyone, to the point that she told a friend she had trouble watching Ghostbusters because she’d dated everyone in it.
The bitter irony of Radner’s success is the dearth of work she’s left behind: her six years on SNL are hardly mainstream anymore and, after she left, she starred in a handful of critically panned comedy films. Most millennials have never seen her work, nor have they even had the chance.
Dapolito cleverly solves this problem by inviting some of the most famous modern SNL alumni – including Amy Poehler, Maya Rudolph and Bill Hader – to read from Radner’s diaries and reflect on how she inspired them personally. Indeed, Radner’s legacy survives less in taped recordings than in those who grew up watching her. (Poehler concedes, only half-jokingly, that most of her SNL characters were B-grade ripoffs of Radner’s seminal work.)
Coalescing today’s culturally aware comedy scene with a deep dive into Radner’s life more than justifies the fact that nobody’s made this movie until now. Actually, it makes it better, almost as if Radner’s spirit were waiting for the right moment in history to make a grand comeback on the big screen, reminding audiences just how hard it is to be a woman in comedy.
Love, Gilda is now playing at the Hot Docs Bloor Cinema in Toronto and is available on iTunes and On Demand.