In the 1970s, as a member of the original cast of NBC’s sketch comedy show Saturday Night Live, Gilda Radner burst onto the national comedy scene. She quickly became a big reason people tuned in every Saturday night, creating a wide array of quirky characters. The funny, poignant, documentary Love, Gilda uses a lot of archival footage, home movies, audio recordings and private correspondence to tell her story. Using her own words, it paints a picture of a woman who did not know who she was if she was not being funny. There are several good anecdotes and some of the clips are quite amusing, but director/producer Lisa D’Apolito allows the real Gilda Radner to be the star instead of performer Gilda Radner. That is where its true value lies.
Gilda Radner was born to an affluent Jewish family in 1946 Detroit. As a child, she struggled with weight issues, but discovered she could ward off some of the bullies by making them laugh. Love, Gilda spends a little time on this period of her life, then basically skips ahead to college and her realizing her love of performing in front of audiences. Most of its 83 minute running time (plus a brief post-credits scene) is focused on her years in the spotlight.
One of the reasons it is so intriguing is because it does not shy away from her struggles, both the depression she battled her whole life and the cancer she eventually succumbed to in 1989. Though she loved hearing the laughter of audiences, she longed all the more for a meaningful romantic relationship. Her desperation led to much unhappiness and several unfulfilling relationships that negatively affected her mental health. Even as she threw herself into her profession with a seemingly fearless abandon, her interior life was a constant fight. The movie shows this without pitying her. In fact, D’Apolito seems to admire what Radner was able to accomplish despite everything working against her.
Gilda Radner has always been more of an idea to me than a reality. She passed away when I was six and I have only seen clips of her work. Love, Gilda adds a context to her life and career that I was lacking. I understood she was highly respected in comedy circles and an important part in putting SNL on the map. But the movie is just as much about who she was as it is what she was. As in many recent documentaries, there are sections where it falls too deep into redundant praise. However, by relying so heavily on Gilda’s own thoughts and feelings, it actually tries to get to know her instead of becoming mere hagiography.
There is a little too much D’Apolito barely touches on, such as Radner’s childhood, her start in the entertainment industry or her post-SNL career. For someone like me, who did not know a lot about her life, Love, Gilda is a good introduction, as well as a convincing explanation for her popularity. It is not a thorough biography, but it is a respectful and (mostly) honest celebration of a comedy icon.
3½ out of 5
Directed by Lisa D’Apolito