Before there was Kate McKinnon, Tina Fey or Amy Schumer, there was Gilda Radner. Gilda was one seventh of the original 1975 Saturday Night Live cast also known as The Not Ready For Prime-Time Players (the other six were Jane Curtin, Larraine Newman, John Belushi, Chevy Chase, Garrett Morris and Dan Akroyd) and paved the way for so many comedians, especially women. The documentary “Love, Gilda” (which I was able to watch a screening of at the Nantucket Film Festival) tells the story of Gilda’s life from the funny to the un-funny, using archival voice recording narrations from Gilda herself. Featuring footage of Maya Rudolph, Amy Poehler, Melissa McCarthy, Bill Hader, Lorne Michaels and more comedic household names, Gilda lives on in the hearts of comedians who still look to her as an inspiration. The archival footage in the film ranges from Gilda’s childhood to her one-woman Broadway show. The documentary, directed by Lisa Dapolito, showcases Gilda’s incredible knack for making people laugh while addressing her struggles with depression and an eating disorder.
Gilda Radner was born in Detroit, Michigan to an affluent Jewish family in 1946. She was a chubby kid who often felt pressure, especially from her mother, to lose weight. In one of her many journal entries she wrote, “I made them laugh before they could hurt me.” I spoke to a woman standing in front of me in line. We began to chat about the weather, the films at the festival and Gilda. She told me she grew up on the same street as Gilda; they even went to school together. She fondly remembers her silly antics on the bus to school, she told me, “Gilda was always funny, even at 11 years old she knew she was hilarious.”
Gilda went on to the University of Michigan to study theater. She performed in a comedic satire group on campus and always looked back fondly on her days in Ann Arbor. She left the University before she finished her degree to move to Canada with a sculptor she fell in love with. It was in Toronto that Gilda began her rise to fame. She worked at a small theater company and decided to audition for a little play called “Godspell” where she met her on-and-off lover, Martin Short. After “Godspell,” Gilda went on to do improv comedy with The Second City Theater in Toronto where a man by the name of John Belushi discovered her. Belushi asked Gilda to be “the girl” for a new radio program called National Lampoon Radio Hour featuring the likes of Bill Murray and Chevy Chase. From there, Gilda went on to become a member of the original cast of Saturday Night Live and the rest is history.
Gilda flourished on SNL, showcasing her knack for character acting and physical humor. Among her most famous characters were Emily Litella and Roseanne Roseannadanna. In the film, Poehler mentions that none of her characters were original, rather they stemmed from Gilda’s unique and outrageous characters. After the screening, director Lisa Dapolito was asked which Gilda character was her favorite. She answered quickly, “Just Gilda.”
When Gilda was on SNL, she was a certified celebrity, often plagued by paparazzi and fans. However, as fame engulfed her, she still struggled with low self-esteem, as her journals point out. The film, for a brief moment shows in Gilda’s handwriting, four brief but powerful testimonies: “To love, to dream, to be talked about, to be recognized.”
Was Gilda equating love and attention? Was she listing things she wanted to accomplish, a sort of to do list for her life? I keep thinking about this moment, the combination of the statements stringed together in a poetic line of questioning self-worth. She was beloved by millions, people tuned in every week to see her, to laugh at her, to love her. In fact, it was love that motivated her, as she said in the film, “People want to know, ‘Well, what made you funny?’ And I know what made me funny. My biggest motivation has always been love.”
There was a joke that Gilda couldn’t watch “Ghostbusters” because she had dated three-fourths of the squad. Gilda’s love life was certainly active. She was the girl who always had a boyfriend. She was briefly married to SNL guitarist G.E. Smith before she met the man she called the love of her life, Willy Wonka himself, Gene Wilder. The two met on the set of the 1982 film, “Hanky Panky” and the sparks were undeniable. The two went on to marry in 1984 and remained blissfully in love to the day Gilda died in 1989 from ovarian cancer.
Gilda was a bright flame who burnt out way too soon; she died at the young age of 42, but her legacy lives on through the scores of comedians she inspired. The documentary allows the audience to experience Gilda on and off stage, in and out of costume.