I love Gilda Radner.
Growing up alongside then-fledgling and revolutionary late-night sketch comedy institution “Saturday Night Live” (I may not be young) meant that all the original not-ready-for-prime-time players were formative figures for me as an aspiring comedy disciple. But Gilda was different.
I loved her.
It’s not that Radner wasn’t a sure-fire, all-star belly-laugh machine, because she was. On “SNL,” Gilda cranked out characters like Lisa Loopner, Judy Miller, Roseanne Rosannadanna, Emily Litella and her nigh-incomprehensible Barbara Walters, Baba Wawa, among others with crowd-delighting regularity. She donned wigs and outfits and fake armpit hair (for gonzo punk rocker Candy Slice) and threw herself across the Studio 8H stage for our amusement, with body-bruising abandon, and we loved her for it. Costars Chevy Chase, John Belushi, Dan Aykroyd and Bill Murray were towering comedy rock stars, but Gilda was loved – as well as being a towering comedy rock star.
There really isn’t a better title for Lisa D’Apolito’s new documentary about Radner, playing this weekend at PMA Films, than “Love, Gilda,” a deeply affectionate, warmly reverential portrait of the Detroit-born comedian. Packed beginning to end with reminiscences from “SNL” colleagues (Chevy Chase, Larraine Newman, writers Rosie Shuster and Alan Zweibel, producer Lorne Michaels) and more recent alums (Amy Pohler, Cecily Strong, Maya Rudolph, Bill Hader, five-time host Melissa McCarthy), as well as family and friends, “Love, Gilda” fairly glows with still-vital admiration and affection, nearly 30 years after Radner died from ovarian cancer at the age of 42.
Then there is the wealth of clips, not just of her many “SNL” triumphs, but of Gilda herself, clowning for cameras from seemingly the day she was born, all the way through her rise in the Second City comedy scene (where she was also in the amazing original Toronto cast of “Godspell” alongside Martin Short, Paul Shaffer, Dave Thomas, Andrea Martin, Victor Garber and Eugene Levy) to the National Lampoon to Canadian producer Lorne Michaels’ weird little late-night NBC TV experiment, “Saturday Night Live.” Gilda narrates the film as well, her softly funny voice captured on old cassette tapes made while writing her best-selling posthumous 1989 memoir “It’s Always Something.” There are her voluminous diaries, too, snatches of which are scrawled on-screen in her handwriting or read out by admirers like Poehler, Rudolph and McCarthy with an affection bordering on reverence.
So there’s a lot to love about “Love, Gilda,” and a lot of love in it. It’s the sort of testament to a life lived making others laugh, and making others happy, that suits our memories of Gilda Radner best, even if, as a film, “Love, Gilda” never aspires to be much more than that. And, honestly, that’s OK; I can’t imagine anyone looking for a raw, searching exposé, even if Radner’s life lent itself to one. And the film doesn’t demur from touching on Radner’s lifelong battle with eating disorders like bulimia and her restless unhappiness that saw her seeking love from a long succession of usually famous boyfriends and husbands. One interviewee tells of how Gilda couldn’t enjoy “Ghostbusters” because she’d once dated all three main characters, thinking that, perhaps, they were each the one.
But there is more to Gilda than “Love, Gilda” chooses to get into, leaving the film a sweet, and not unwelcome or unwarranted, tribute to someone who still lingers lovingly in the consciousness of comedy fans everywhere. Zweibel, who, in addition to being an original Radner writing partner on “SNL,” has written feelingly of their intense, lifelong platonic relationship in his book “Bunny Bunny: Gilda Radner, A Sort of Romantic Comedy,” burns in his brief appearances like someone with more to say about the person he knew. Others who might have colored in this portrait are conspicuous in their absence, like Murray, Aykroyd, Jane Curtin or Garrett Morris. And Radner’s post-“SNL” film career and marriage to the late Gene Wilder pass by in rosy, if melancholic, memories of her illness and eventual death without delving into either the reasons why Radner’s stardom just sort of faded away or how her apparent domestic bliss with Wilder filled – or didn’t – her lifetime of lonely neediness. (And not to rain on “Love, Gilda’s” sunny hagiography, but Wilder’s own autobiography, “Kiss Me Like a Stranger” detailed how the notoriously prickly actor’s relationship with his unquestionably beloved late wife was marked by Gilda’s bottomless need.)
The film also doesn’t examine in any real way the specific uniqueness of Gilda’s comedy or why our connection to Gilda was so strong or so enduring. When Wilder died in 2016, the internet flooded with the sentiments of those proclaiming that he will at least be reunited with Gilda – even though Wilder was remarried to another woman for more than five times longer. Fans exerted a sort of ownership over our relationship with Gilda Radner. We loved her, and we projected that love onto her with uniquely passionate intensity, even if she herself, as the film shows in the spaces between the laughs, remained quite terribly alone. “Love, Gilda” loves Gilda, as do we all. And the fact that it leaves us wanting more from her, even now, suggests more about our complicated love for her than the film itself is willing or able to examine.
“Love, Gilda” is playing at PMA Films from Thursday to Sunday. It’s co-presented with the Maine Jewish Film Festival and runs 86 minutes. And forget all the film critic grousing; it’s wonderful to just spend an hour and a half with Gilda.
Starts Friday: “Eighth Grade.” First-time director (and really good stand-up comedian) Bo Burnham scores right out of the gate with this acclaimed and perceptive study of the last, mundanely momentous week in middle school of a shy 13-year-old girl (an excellent Elsie Fisher).
Tuesday, Oct. 23: “Hale Country This Morning, This Evening.” This stunningly intimate and poetic documentary follows five years in the divergent lives of two young black men in rural Alabama. With an appearance from director RaMell Ross.