Compelling documentary looking at the life and career of American comic Gilda Radner

Love, Gilda

Source: Tribeca Film Festival

Love, Gilda

Dir Lisa D’Apolito. USA. 2018. 88mins

Almost 30 years after her death, trailblazing comic Gilda Radner receives the fondest of salutes in Lisa D’Apolito’s documentary Love, Gilda. A comprehensive remembrance of Radner’s public legacy is underpinned by an engrossing insight into her private struggles, making for an informative and poignant showbusiness story.

The film gains more of an edge in the second half, when it tries to convey a sense of what Radner was like

CNN Films holds the US rights to a documentary that could use the traction from a world premiere, opening gala slot at Tribeca to attract further interest — although how well remembered Radner is outside America will be a telling factor.

There is a whole history of 20th century American comedy encapsulated within the single lifetime of Gilda Radner. A natural born performer, inspired by Charles Chaplin and Lucille Ball, the multi-talented writer, singer and performer first shone at the Second City comedy club in Toronto. She was an original cast member of Saturday Night Live, creating characters like personal advice expert Roseanne Roseannadanna and reporter Baba Wawa. She performed her one woman Broadway show to rapturous audiences and left a modest mark on the movies with roles opposite her second husband Gene Wilder in the likes of Hanky Panky (1982) and The Woman In Red (1984).

Love, Gilda is a methodical journey through Radner’s professional accomplishments pieced together from extensive family home movies, choice clips, diaries, notebooks and taped interviews that allow her voice to become the dominant one in the film. Melissa McCarthy, Amy Poehler, Bill Hader and other Saturday Night Live alumni readily acknowledge her influence and reverently handle the original documents in which Radner reveals her hopes, dreams, anxieties and misgivings.

Director Lisa D’Apolito has assembled an impressive roster of interview subjects from Radner’s brother Michael and Wilder’s nephew Jordan to her good friend Martin Short and Saturday Night Live colleague Chevy Chase. Notable absentees include Bill Murray, Dan Aykroyd and Steve Martin, who all feature in archive footage.

The coverage of her career feels exhaustive and makes for a solid, traditional but slightly laborious talking heads documentary. The film gains more of an edge in the second half, when it tries to convey a sense of what Radner was like. Almost the equivalent of putting her on the psychiatrist’s couch, the film becomes much more compelling when we discover that comedy was a default mode for Radner. Making people laugh was a comfort blanket of protection against everything from being bullied at school to the loss of her beloved father when she was just fourteen.

The hunger for love and approval were intrinsically linked to her need to perform. The film reveals her issues with food and the feeling that her huge success did not make life any less lonely. It also charts her love and marriage to Gene Wilder and the cruel irony that the happiness of that union would be curtailed by the ovarian cancer that took her life at 43.

Love, Gilda tells us what Gilda Radner achieved and why she still matters but by looking behind the mask of success it also provides a more fully rounded and engaging portrait.  

Production companies: 3 Faces Films, Motto Pictures

International sales: Josh Braun, Submarine

Producers: Lisa D’ Apolito, Bronwyn Berry, Meryl Goldsmith, James Tumminia

Editing: Anne Alvergue, David Cohen

Cinematography: Rob Featherstone, Nick Higgins

Music: Miriam Cutler

Features: Gilda Radner, Martin Short, Melissa McCarthy