Love, Gilda Is a Wonderful Documentary for Those Who Already Love Gilda

The new movie offers an affectionate all-access portrait of the late SNL star, if one unlikely to win new converts.

Collage of photos from Gilda Radner's life, including two with her husband Gene Wilder.
Images of Gilda Radner and Gene Wilder Photo illustration by Slate. Photos courtesy of Magnolia Pictures.

Like Robin Williams, Gilda Radner was the rare comedian who was both inherently funny and inherently lovable. Neither a taboo-buster like Sarah Silverman or a razor-sharp satirist like Samantha Bee or Tina Fey, Radner specialized in creating vivid, universally recognizable characters. Her humor arose, she once noted in an audiotaped journal, from dealing with her personal anxieties. “I always felt my comedy was just to make things be all right,” she says. “I could be people that I really wasn’t. I could produce comedy to be in control of my situation.”

So it is perhaps hardly surprising that Love, Gilda director Lisa D’Apolito’s affectionate, well-crafted portrait of the late Saturday Night Live star focuses primarily on Radner’s personal journey. Clearly a trusted pair of hands (she has made films for Gilda’s Club, the charity set up in Radner’s memory), D’Apolito was given unprecedented access to family and friends, as well as a wealth of archival material including rare performance footage, handwritten notebooks, home movies (even footage of Radner in the hospital preparing for chemo), and that taped journal, which provides the film’s only narration. The result, like much of Radner’s comedy, is entertaining, appealing, and more soft-centered than challenging or acerbic.

Radner’s fame rests on a surprisingly small body of work—primarily her standout appearances on five seasons of Saturday Night Live as part of the legendary original cast. To bolster her continuing relevance to audiences born after the comedian died in 1989, D’Apolito enlists more recent SNL alums and comedy stars like Amy Poehler, Bill Hader, and Melissa McCarthy to read from Radner’s journals and muse on how she influenced them and her legacy to comedy in general.

But the work has to speak for itself and, while glimpses of classic characters like loudmouthed consumer reporter Roseanne Roseannadanna, girl nerd Lisa Loopner, and angry little old lady Emily Litella convey how funny and charming Radner was, they are only snippets, presumably aimed at her original fans, yesterday’s hip young things turned today’s senior citizens, along with some younger viewers who know the material via best-of collections and Nick at Nite’s reruns of the early SNL years. For anyone else, the excerpts are more like prompts to check out the full sketches on YouTube.

Throughout the film, Radner defies the stereotype of the comedian as disgruntled outsider. She had no trouble making friends of both sexes—in school, in Second City (an era during which she shared a house with Eugene Levy and Martin Short, a boyfriend), with the notoriously clannish National Lampoon crowd, and at SNL. Raised in an affluent Detroit family, she had a secure childhood, at least until her beloved father died when she was 14, introducing the distrust of unalloyed happiness without which a comedian cannot be created. Around the same time, she developed the eating disorder that would plague her throughout her life.

One of the most interesting, if somewhat unexplored, internal contradictions that emerges is the discrepancy between Radner the ambitious pioneering “only girl in the room” (in writer Nell Scovell’s phrase) who forged sisterly alliances with SNL’s female writers in order to get more of their work into the final broadcast, and Radner the man’s woman who dropped out of college to follow her Canadian sculptor boyfriend, who didn’t like her being funny, to Canada. Similarly, after she married Gene Wilder (who liked her being funny), she restricted her work life to appearing in movies he co-starred in.

But even if Radner was not an outspoken feminist, she stuck up for herself by less confrontational means. For example, when she realized her male co-creators on The National Lampoon Radio Hour liked her pitches but weren’t including any of her ideas in the show, she suggested “why don’t I do the typing while you guys think of the ideas?” Naturally this appeal to stereotypical roles worked, with Radner cannily realizing that by controlling the flow of the discussion she could get her ideas in.

Within its mandate—presenting a sympathetic portrait of Radner as she wrestled with bulimia, insecurity, fame (“being famous is almost as bad for dating as being funny,” she observes), burnout, and finally, ovarian cancer with courage and above all humor—the film succeeds brilliantly. But I couldn’t help wishing for a greater sense of what was going on in the outside world, as well as in comedy in general, and how she bounced off these.

For instance, Radner’s time at the University of Michigan is swiftly dealt with, but it’s never mentioned that Ann Arbor was a hotbed of radicalism at the time, nor how she felt about it. “My friends would try to get me into political things and I would say, no, I have to do this play,” as she told Rolling Stone in 1978. Similarly, we never find out whether Radner was influenced by frequent SNL guest host Lily Tomlin, early ’70s comedy idol and character comedian extraordinaire. Perhaps Tomlin was too cerebral; a bigger influence was Lucille Ball, who shared Radner’s predilection for physical comedy and fearless goofiness.

In the end, Love, Gilda is one for the already converted, not a revelation of the unknown. But no one can fail to be moved by Radner’s final television appearance, on It’s Garry Shandling’s Show, in which she jokes about her terminal disease by declaring, “My jokes are my only weapon against this fucker.” Radner may have been sweet, but she could be tough as hell when it counted.