Movie Review: Love, Gilda (2018)
“Love, Gilda” is a sweet documentary about a sweet comedian, Gilda Radner, one of the break-out stars from the original cast of “Saturday Night Live,” who died of cancer in 1989 at the age of 42. It’s probably too sweet. For a doc about someone who spent much of her life making us laugh, I didn’t laugh much. We only get snippets of bits. It’s fair-use clips.
We also get a few WTF moments. First-time director Lisa Dapolito takes us to the launch of “SNL” in the fall of 1975, and behind-the-scenes romances and battles, and the characters Radner and others created, and I’m wondering, “OK. When will it hit that they’re huge? When will she feel the impact of becoming a national icon?” According to Dapolito, it took place when “SNL” did a live show in New Orelans in 1977. That’s when they all saw how popular they were.
1977? A year and a half after it exploded like a bomb onto American pop culture? Months after its first break-out star, Chevy Chase, left the show to star in Hollywood movies? They didn’t know until then?
Or is the point that the Nola adventure was different from mere fame? That it was scary? This is from the Times-Picyaune’s 2017 look back on that episode:
In another sketch, after Gilda Radner did her popular Emily Litella character—complaining about “liverboats” on the Mississippi River—fans stormed the stage. Groping ensued.
I searched for clarification because we don’t get much from Dapolito, who seems to have based a lot of the doc on Radner’s 1989 memoir, “It’s Always Something.” We don’t get clarity on the romances, either. Radner had many boyfriends over the years, even before she became a star, but how they began and ended? Who knows? They just come and go. The only onscreen ex/talking head is Martin Short, who met Gilda during the 1972 Toronto production of “Godspell,” and who is sweet and funny in his remembrances. But overall the doc implies that her many relationships were indicative less of experimentation or fun than low self-esteem. Gilda lost her father at an early age, and, via audio-book voiceover, she makes a reference to maybe trying to compensate for that loss.
I like the various stepping stones to “SNL,” such as “Second City” and “National Lampoon Radio Hour.” Not enough is done on that. I’d like a doc on just that. I like the coming together of the team: Now Aykroyd’s on board, now Belushi, there’s Bill Murray in the background. BTW: How did the SCTV guys, who were also part of these shows, not wind up on “SNL”? Did Lorne Michaels, whose first pick for the show was Radner, really reject them? Did he not think John Candy and Joe Flaherty were funny?
Revelations: I didn’t know Gilda was anorexic. (How did I not?) I didn’t know she married G.E. Smith, the future “SNL” guitarist and band leader, whom she met doing her one-woman show on Broadway in 1980. The doc glosses over that relationship to get to the Gene Wilder one, and then kind of glosses over that. It keeps a discreet distance from its subject. It's polite. The doc also glosses over the play “Lunch Hour” that she did with Sam Waterston in 1980, and the movie, “First Family“ with Bob Newhart that also came out in 1980. That was her first big post-”SNL" movie. How was that her first? Belushi was in both “Animal House” and “Goin’ South” in ’78. He and Aykroyd were in “1941” the next year, and “Blues Brothers” the year after. Late arrival Bill Murray starred in “Meatballs” in ’79. Even Jane Curtain starred with Jessica Lange in “How to Beat the High Cost of Living” in 1980. Did Gilda turn down projects? Was she not offered them? Was it Hollywood sexism or her predilection for the theater?
And then it was too late. After “First Family,” she went off on that Gene Wilder string: “Hanky Panky” in 1982 (second-billed), “The Woman in Red” in 1984 (seventh-billed), “Haunted Honeymoon” in 1986 (second-billed). She didn’t click. Whatever clicked before, didn’t here. (The why of the click is worth exploring.) She was riding the wave and then the wave went elsewhere.
I could’ve used more of her contemporaries as talking heads. We get Chevy, Marty, Paul Shaffer, Laraine Newman, Lorne Michaels, and “SNL” writer Alan Zweibel. That’s it. The other talking heads are next-gen comics to whom she’s an icon: Melissa McCarthy, Amy Poehler, Maya Rudoph. There’s a sweet moment when one of them is handed her scrapbook/diary, and says, in awe, “Is this her handwriting?”
But there’s not much insight. It’s mostly feeling. And I left feeling meh.