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