When Saturday Night Live debuted in 1975, I was not old enough to watch. My parents were huge fans, though, and by the late ’70s I was obsessed. I studied the show on videotape, giggled along with Steve Martin records, and repeatedly paged through the scrapbook Saturday Night Live: Host, Francisco Franco, an oversized green softcover from 1977 full of scribbled-on scripts and goofy behind-the-scenes photos.
But Gilda Radner was always my true love. I adored her mischievousness, her glee, her manic expressiveness, her pure commitment as she hurled herself onto her bed and into doors as Judy Miller, the tiny hostess of a one-woman show who wore a glamorous half-slip on her head. I loved Roseanne Roseannadanna (where the heck was “Fort Lee, New Jersey”? I had no clue, but when Roseanne Roseannadanna said Mr. Richard Feder lived there, it was hilarious!) and Emily Litella (“What’s all this fuss about saving Soviet jewelry? Where are we going to put it? I say keep it over there, with all their ballet dancers!”). I sang into a hairbrush on “Goodbye Saccharin,” along with slinky polyester-clad, feathered-haired Rhonda Weiss and the Rhondettes (“Oh they say you gave rats cancer/but I say that can’t be true/Because you are so very sweet/that’s something you’d never do”) and forced my little brother Andy to sing backup. (Don’t even get me started on “Jewess Jeans“.) Then there was Gilda’s album Live From New York; I memorized both “Let’s Talk Dirty to the Animals” (decades later performing it for my own children, who were scandalized) and “I Love to Be Unhappy” (“I love to be unhappy/I live to be in pain/When days are full of sunshine/I’m looking for the rain!”), aka the most Jewish song ever.
So I was thrilled to attend the premiere of the new documentary Love, Gilda at the Tribeca Film Festival last month. The movie is now playing the festival circuit (check upcoming dates on the movie’s Facebook page) in advance of a theatrical release later this year, under the auspices of Magnolia Pictures. Love, Gilda may be the first full-length commercial feature by director Lisa D’Apolito, but it feels hugely accomplished.
D’Apolito had great raw material: Radner kept extensive handwritten diaries, as well as journal entries on audiocassette. She was an inveterate letter writer (hence the movie’s title, which appears in Radner’s own loopy, attractive handwriting, animated on screen—by the end of the film, we’ve come to know it as well as a family member’s). There are home movies of Radner as a hammy little kid and private videos of Radner with her husband, Gene Wilder, in the hospital toward the end of her life. The viewer knows, of course, that Radner died of ovarian cancer at the age of 42; it’s both thrilling and painful to watch her in all her antic, wild-haired glory, an absolute force of nature, while knowing how little time she has.
The movie also reveals that Radner struggled with terrible eating disorders for almost her entire life. Born in 1946 to a well-off Jewish family in Detroit, she appears in black-and-white home movies as a chubby, cherubic, merry-looking little kid. Her slender, glamorous mother was distressed by Radner’s weight and started her on Dexedrine when she was 10. Radner was a daddy’s girl; her father took her to movies and touring productions of Broadway shows and was an eager, attentive audience for Radner’s early comedic stylings. Little Gilda idolized Charlie Chaplin and Lucille Ball (“anyone who was willing to risk it,” as she put it). When she was 12 her father developed a headache that turned out to be a brain tumor; he deteriorated rapidly and died two years later. Fortunately, Radner had Dibby, the family caregiver. (“My best friend is 53 years older than me,” Radner wrote. “We live in the same house. She came when I was four months old and stayed for 18 years.”) In home movies, Dibby gazes at Radner with utter love and amusement; we the audience feel huge relief and gratitude. “She says I’m striking,” Radner notes in voice-over. Dibby teaches Radner to use comedy as a response to kids who mock her weight: “I made them laugh before they hurt me, before they said, ‘Hey, you fat thing,’” she recalls. And Dibby became the inspiration for Emily Litella.
“When I think back on my life, I always felt that my comedy was just to make things be all right,” Radner wrote in her journal. “I love the naiveté that the soul can believe what it wants to believe. I could be prettier than I was. I could be people that I really wasn’t. I could use comedy to be in control of my situation.” In the film, current comics—Amy Poehler, Maya Rudolph, Cecily Strong—take turns reading the diaries aloud. Melissa McCarthy is wide-eyed as she holds a loose-leaf binder: “Are these actually her papers? These are actually her…?” And suddenly she looks as though she’s touching the Dead Sea Scrolls. The only male reader is Bill Hader, which feels right; he’s always seemed like the non-bro-est of comedians. “This is a real honor,” he tells D’Apolito, with a shy smile. “Like, seriously…this is huge.” It’s evident how huge an influence Radner was.
When Tina Fey introduced the film in person at the festival, she choked up. “Lisa’s film feels like a miracle to me,” she told the audience. “It felt like I was getting to spend time with someone that I never knew, that I very much would have wanted to spend time with.”
Radner’s friends and relatives share their own stories about her in the film; we meet her brother Michael and hear from a few SNL castmates and writers, and from Gene Wilder’s nephew, Jordan Walker-Pearlman. The most frequent talking heads, though, are her lifelong friends from Camp Maplehurst, in 1955 Pam Katz Zakheim and Judy Glucklick Levy. I was relieved to learn how much she valued her friendships with women; Radner clearly wasn’t one of those girls who likes to be the only girl in the room.
But a vast hunger for love of all kinds—romantic, platonic, and whatever you call love from an audience—was what drove her, as clichéd as that sounds. She dropped out of the University of Michigan for a guy, Canadian sculptor Jeffrey Rubinoff, whom she followed to Toronto. D’Apolito uncovered wonderful footage of Radner’s first professional gig: a hyperenthusiastic production of Godspell that’s nearly as hard to watch as the one in Red Hot American Summer, despite the presence in the Toronto version of Eugene Levy, Andrea Martin, Victor Garber, Martin Short, and Paul Shaffer. Short, who wound up dating Radner off and on for years starting when he was 22 and she was 26, recalled that she auditioned with “Zip-a-Dee-Doo-Dah” and was…not good. “She was very quick to tell us she was not a singer,” composer Stephen Schwartz recalls. “Which was accurate.”
Short expresses the frustration he felt toward Radner when they were together. “You have family money, everyone adores you, every guy falls in love with you, and every girl wants you to be your best friend…how could you be unhappy?” he asks. He pauses. “I wasn’t sophisticated enough to understand that emotional uncertainty was valid.” Radner moved on to Second City in Toronto, and then the National Lampoon Radio Hour, and then to SNL, where she was the first person Lorne Michaels cast.
Radner cut a huge swath through her male coworkers (the movie doesn’t dwell on this) but it wasn’t until she met Wilder that she seemed to fall truly in love. “It felt like my life went from black and white to Technicolor,” she wrote. Part of me winced to watch her desperate pursuit of Wilder (taking up tennis because he liked sporty girls; learning French because he loved Paris; abandoning New York for Los Angeles to be with him), but Wilder also seemed to be a supportive adult in ways that her previous boyfriends weren’t. “Gene took Gilda away from us,” Shaffer says flatly. “But we also were aware that she had physical problems and he was getting her taken care of.” In the film, Wilder’s nephew talks about how Wilder taught Radner to enjoy eating for the first time. And when Radner was diagnosed with stage IV ovarian cancer in 1986, Wilder was fully present.
In the movie, we spy on intimate moments in the hospital: Wilder bringing their tiny dog, Miss Sparkle Radner-Wilder, to the hospital in a tote bag, shaking the dog out onto the bed and waking Radner up with kisses and hugs as Miss Sparkle growls at the camera. Radner taking off her head wrap to reveal her patchy cropped hair and Wilder murmuring, “I love it like that.” And of course, after Radner’s death, Wilder helped establish the Gilda Radner Hereditary Cancer Program and the Gilda Radner Familial Ovarian Cancer Registry to screen high-risk candidates (like Ashkenazi Jews) and to educate people about cancer’s genetic component. He also helped create Gilda’s Club in 1995; it eventually became part of the largest cancer support network in the country.
The film doesn’t have a happy ending. How could it? Radner died on May 20, 1989. Her autobiography, It’s Always Something, was published two weeks later. She died on a Saturday; Steve Martin was hosting SNL that night. He scrapped his monologue, and instead, in tears, introduced the clip of one of the greatest moments in SNL history: the 1978 sketch based on Fred Astaire and Cyd Charisse movie The Band Wagon, in which Radner and Martin spot each other across a crowded disco and come together in a dance that’s both ridiculous and romantic. It’s uncomfortable, awkward, tender, physical, sexy and hilarious. It’s perfectly Gilda.
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Marjorie Ingall is a former columnist for Tablet, the author of Mamaleh Knows Best, and a frequent contributor to the New York Times Book Review.