You cannot help but fall in love with Gilda Radner. Even in death, her spirit radiates with a power nothing can destroy. Her smile stretched for miles whenever she appeared on “Saturday Night Live,” and it never faded from our sight even as she fought a tough battle against ovarian cancer. When she passed away on May 20, 1989 at the age of 42, it really felt like a national tragedy, and I remember Steven Martin paying tribute to her on the “SNL” stage while on the verge of tears. After showing a video of him dancing with Gilda, he said the following:
“You know when I look at that tape I can’t help but think how great she was and how young I looked. Gilda, we miss you.”
It’s now been almost 30 years since Gilda died, and she is still missed. But with the documentary “Love, Gilda,” she is brought back to life for a time, and we get to see sides of her many have not seen previously. Granted, her life has been documented endlessly on various shows and in numerous books, but we get to see home movies of her youth and journal entries, most of which were previously unseen. Whether or not you think this documentary touches on anything new, just the chance to spend time in her company makes it a must see.
Among the most memorable images we get of Gilda are in home movies made when she was a child. Even back then she had a big smile on her face and a zest for life which never faded. We also see how she was overweight as a child to where she talked of how kids at school teased her viciously. One family member told her to make a joke about her weight if they made fun of her again, and this proved successful. From there, I think it’s safe to say comedy was Gilda’s weapon of choice for all the obstacles life would throw at her.
It’s a treat to watch “SNL” regulars like Amy Poehler, Maya Rudolph, Bill Hader and Cecily Strong among others reading from Gilda’s journals as it is clear on their faces the love they had for her work, and of the effect she had on theirs. Poehler even admits many of the characters she created on “SNL” were essentially B-versions of Gilda’s characters, but her work still stands on its own regardless. I envied these celebrated performers as they got a glimpse of Gilda’s actual handwriting which gives a glimpse into her wonderful mind.
As “Love, Gilda” moves on, we see her reflecting on the fame she achieved through “SNL” and the overall effect it had on her. I believe her when she reveals how she was unaware of how famous she had become until the cast visited New Orleans. We also come to see how fame at times served to keep her chained to a certain place in life, and of the pressures it brought on which made her eating disorder even worse. Once again, comedy becomes her weapon as she finds ways to make fun of being famous as her spirit remains strong. While she came to fame in a time before the advent of social media and cell phones, being in the public’s eye probably wasn’t much easier.
This world can really beat you down to where we become overcome with disappointments and bitterness, and many often feel like happiness is a commodity far out of their reach. So, it’s always great to know that one person who maintains a strong spirit and a wonderful view of life in the face of personal tragedies. Even as we watch Gilda Radner in her most harrowing moments, going through chemotherapy and losing the ability to bear children, she still has a big smile on her face and an infinitely strong spirit which never faltered even in her dying moments. She also had the love of her life, the late Gene Wilder, at her side through it all. I can only hope to be as lucky.
Could director Lisa D’Apolito, who had the privilege of appearing in my all-time favorite movie, Martin Scorsese’s “Goodfellas,” have dug deeper into Gilda’s life? Perhaps. Some parts are given short shrift like her brief marriage to guitarist G.E. Smith and her movie career which ended after the critical and commercial failure of “Haunted Honeymoon.” D’Apolito also uses audio of Radner reading from her autobiography “It’s Always Something,” which remains one of my favorite books ever. Anyone who has read it can testify just how revealing Radner is about her struggles, and it threatens to make this documentary pale in comparison.
Regardless, D’Apolito does excellent work in making us see what a strong human being Gilda Radner was, and of how her spirit and influence remain incredibly strong even years after her death. The “SNL” cast member was made to endure terrible things in her life and left us at far too young an age, and yet she came out fighting and left us laughing hysterically. She even found humor in her cancer battle and demonstrated this when she guest starred on “It’s Garry Shandling’s Show,” and her entrance was one full of victory. Nobody dared to make jokes about cancer back then, but she showed no fear in making fun of the most hideous of diseases. Even if it feels like there could have been more to this documentary than what we are shown, D’Apolito makes us see how Radner lives on in many ways.
Wilder founded “Gilda’s Club,” an organization where people with cancer can meet to build emotional and social support, after her death, and there are now over a dozen of them throughout America. Her book “It’s Always Something” is still in print, and I cannot recommend it more highly. And, of course, you can always catch her in “SNL” reruns which continue to entertain audiences of many generations. She may be gone, but “Love, Gilda” shows she never really left us. With a spirit as strong as hers, she never will.