Love, Gilda

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Gilda Rad­ner al­ways seemed to be hav­ing so much fun. That was the se­cret to her me­te­oric rise as one of the first break­out stars of

Her ex­u­ber­ant silli­ness was con­ta­gious. Lisa D’Apolito’s cap­tures some of this spirit while sketch­ing in a brief bi­og­ra­phy of the woman who set the bar for fe­male comics in the 1970s, and then left the world a poorer place when she suc­cumbed to can­cer in 1989, at the age of forty-two.

Rad­ner cre­ated in­deli­ble char­ac­ters on like Emily Litella, the hard-of-hear­ing op-ed con­trib­u­tor to (Emily: “What’s all this about pres­i­den­tial erec­tions?” Chevy Chase: “That’s pres­i­den­tial elec­tions, Emily. Not erec­tions.” Emily: “Oh. Well, that’s dif­fer­ent. Never mind.”). Oth­ers in­cluded Roseanne Rosean­nadanna, the snarky news per­son­al­ity in­spired by a lo­cal New York an­chor­woman, and Baba Wawa, Gilda’s clas­sic sendup of Bar­bara Wal­ters.

The movie sketches in just enough of the comic’s life and ca­reer to let us re­mem­ber what a gift she was. D’Apolito be­gins with a later gen­er­a­tion of cast mem­bers, mostly women, read­ing from Rad­ner’s jour­nals and note­books and let­ters (signed “Love, Gilda”) and pay­ing trib­ute to their debt to her. Through­out, there are brief ap­pear­ances by col­leagues like Lorne Michaels, Laraine New­man, and Chevy Chase, along with Rad­ner’s close friend, the com­edy writer Alan Zweibel, re­flect­ing on what made Gilda tick.

We re­visit her Detroit child­hood through home movies and Rad­ner’s recorded rec­ol­lec­tions. We meet a lit­tle girl who was al­ways per­form­ing, al­ways want­ing to make peo­ple laugh; a mother who put her on diet pills at age ten; an adored fa­ther who died while she was in high school; and a lot of boyfriends. We get into her early for­ays into pro­fes­sional com­edy with Toronto’s Se­cond City.

Then there are the years, where she was the first cast mem­ber cho­sen. There’s her foray onto Broad­way with a one-woman show and her name in lights, and a brief movie ca­reer that is dis­tin­guished mainly by her meet­ing and fall­ing in love with Gene Wilder, whom she mar­ried. A mis­car­riage. Can­cer.

Per­haps the strong­est, most poignant take­away this movie of­fers is the im­pres­sion of the two sides of fame. Her climb to it is deliri­ous, giddy, and mostly happy, de­spite per­sonal tragedy and a per­sis­tent but well­buried melan­choly that’s men­tioned by her some­time-boyfriend Martin Short. The other side comes with reach­ing that pin­na­cle and think­ing, “Now what?” The chal­lenge is try­ing to main­tain that ex­u­ber­ance when the anonymity is gone, the child­hood dreams have been reached and sur­passed, and there’s the rest of your life to deal with.

For Gilda Rad­ner, it was all too short. — Jonathan Richards

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