The great “Saturday Night Live” performers have always been more than funny. They’re up there to make you laugh, of course, but it’s the way they make you laugh — the manic expressive rock-star shine of their personality, and how it channels their comedic spirit. (That’s something you hold onto long after the laugh is over.) And no one on “Saturday Night Live” ever had a spirit that burned more brightly, or hilariously, than Gilda Radner.
She poured her essence — her very being — into every character she created, and she did it effortlessly, without fuss. When she played Judy Miller, the hyperactive Brownie who made up insanely self-directed TV fantasies in her bedroom, Radner seemed to be channeling her inner child — but that, in a larger sense, is what she did in every sketch. She didn’t just create characters. She became them, and invited the audience to share in the euphoria she felt in submerging, and exposing, herself.
“Love, Gilda,” Lisa D’Apolito’s exuberant and moving documentary portrait of Gilda Radner, which opened this year’s Tribeca Film Festival, is a movie that captures the fascinating evolution and awesome range of Radner’s talent — the dozens of lovingly, crazily etched characters she did on “SNL” (the dear old deaf crank Emily Litella, the head-cold nerd Lisa Loopner, the wildly cantankerous Roseanne Roseannadanna), and the way she hardly even needed to be playing a character; she could just be dancing with a hula hoop, and you felt the magic pull of her gift. In the early years, when Lorne Michaels had a two-and-a-half-minute space to fill that was too short for an official sketch, he would call on Radner to do a bit called “What Gilda Ate,” in which she simply riffed on what she had to eat that day. Just standing there in front of the camera, with no props or characters to hide behind, she had the audience eating out of her hand.
That may seem ironic in light of the revelations that would later come forth about her bulimia, but in fact, it’s not ironic at all. Radner was a sensualist who loved food; she also felt compelled, as a female celebrity of the late ’70s (and the first woman superstar of “Saturday Night Live”), to remain thin. The eating disorder that emerged from that conflict is captured, in “Love, Gilda,” with matter-of-fact honesty, but as serious as it was, it never shrouds Radner’s life force. Nothing does. The movie captures a woman who lived as if she never knew what was coming next. On stage, she went with the flow of her comic impulses, and off stage she went with the flow of her desire for bliss and comfort and salvation, and even with the flow of the cancer that killed her.
Forty years later, her comedy looks more sublime than ever. As you watch “Love, Gilda,” though, it becomes clear that what made Gilda Radner special — and uproarious — was her spirit: open, smiling, generous, euphoric. She was that rare thing, a happy comedian (though, of course, she also had her demons), and “Love, Gilda” is a salute to the complex power of her happiness.
The movie is a perfectly conventional documentary (chronological, full of the talking heads you’d expect — Lorne, Chevy, Laraine, etc.). Yet the reason that description doesn’t do it justice is that D’Apolito, working with the editors Anne Alvergue, David Cohen, and Kristen Nutile, has interpolated a range of still photographs of Radner, culled from throughout her life, into a mutating scrapbook that becomes a kind of visual psychodrama. That may sound like a version of what any decent documentary biography does, but the art of the form can come down to the precision of this photograph, employed at this moment, to express the subject’s shifting moods and circumstances. “Love, Gilda” is plain but beautifully crafted. It draws you close to Radner, presenting her rise through the world of ’70s comedy as a journey of discovery.
The film pays due homage to her ’50s childhood — she was born in 1946 and grew up in an affluent Detroit family, idolizing Charlie Chapin and Lucille Ball, attached to the daddy who came home from his career as a hotel owner and watched her perform for hours. Even then, slipping into characters was what she did, not out of the usual comedian’s “insecurity” but because it came as naturally to her as breathing. As a girl, she battled weight issues (she was put on dexedrine pills at 10), and she later dropped out of the University of Michigan to follow a Canadian sculptor she’d fallen in love with to Toronto. She wanted to be a homemaker.
One of the charms of her career is that it all happened with a minimum of calculation. In Toronto, she stumbled into the cast of “Godspell” and dated Martin Short (at 22, four years her junior), which led her to Second City, which led to a phone call, out of the blue, from John Belushi, who was doing “National Lampoon’s Lemmings” and wanted her to be “the girl in the show.” In 1973, this was called progress.
Seventies comedy, especially stand-up, is often talked about as a noxious boys’ club, and God knows The National Lampoon was, but Second City had a far more gender-friendly vibe, and part of the beauty of the Radner mystique is that she possessed the gentle force and glow to casually defuse the sexism of the comedy world. She was accepted on her own terms, and when Lorne Michaels was getting ready to launch his late-night-TV live-comedy experiment, Gilda was the first one he cast.
The celebrity came instantly, and she basked in it; it enhanced her glow. We see an extraordinary clip of the original cast members, all clammed up on “The Tomorrow Show,” as Lorne Michaels — young, handsome, and dark-haired, but already a self-styled corporate mobster of late night — explains to Tom Snyder that he expects about two of them to last. (What a thing to say! In front of your cast members on national television!) Radner wasn’t fazed. Along with Chevy Chase, she was the first true star of “SNL,” and it didn’t take long for the entire cast to become the Beatles of comedy. They were iconic; a generation grew obsessed with them.
“Love, Gilda” includes fascinating clips of Radner cavorting with Bill Murray on “The National Lampoon Radio Hour”; backstage glimpses of her “SNL” writing partnership with Alan Zweibel; Amy Poehler, Bill Hader, Maya Rudolph, and Melissa McCarthy giving impromptu readings of the journal she kept to the end; and an intimate panorama of her courtship with Gene Wilder. Their romance is quite touching (creatively, though, love really was blind: The one mistake Radner ever made in her career was costarring in her husband’s warmed-over Mel Brooksian duds, like “Haunted Honeymoon”). Her battle with ovarian cancer, which was first diagnosed in 1987, is long and brave, presented by the movie in all its everyday soul-shaping agony. For anyone to die as young as Gilda Radner did (she was 42) is tragic, but for a performer who gave this much to the world, with a spirit of such elation, to be cut down in this way seems beyond cruel. Yet by the end of “Love, Gilda,” you feel like you’ve seen a very full life.