When the documentary “Love, Gilda” premiered at last year’s Tribeca film festival I got left out in the cold. No ticket, it was a sellout. But after taking in the film’s premiere on CNN recently, I could see why “Love, Gilda” would garner such success. This tribute of the life of late comedienne Gilda Radner (1946-1989) is filled with warmth, cheer and heart. I was incredibly fortunate to be able to chat with Lisa D’Apolito about this, her feature directorial debut.
Gilda Radner was one of the original crew, not just a cast member of SNL but, as is pointed out in the film, the first cast member ever hired. Her knack for improv allowed her to attack the then-new late night format show (SNL is now in its forty-fourth year). In addition to creating memorable characters such as “Roseanne Rosannadanna” and “Emily Litella,” Radner performed physical comedy in the tradition of Lucille Ball and could hold her own next to John Belushi or Bill Murray. She became the first female cast member to win an Emmy award for the show. Of course, her life was much more than this. Before her untimely death from ovarian cancer at the age of 42, she had become not only a champion for women in comedy but for people who suffered from cancer, as well. The latter is actually what set the documentary ‘Love, Gilda’ in motion.
As D’Apolito explains it, “I grew up just a few blocks from the Gilda’s Club in Greenwich Village.” The community organization was set up in Radner’s honor in 1995 by Joanna Bull and Gene Wilder to provide support for those affected by cancer. While working on a fundraising video, D’Apolito met Radner’s family and was allowed access to personal writings, photographs and home movies. “After a couple of years of [establishing] trust, Gilda’s brother Michael took some boxes out of storage and we began to go through them.” This material provided insights into Radner’s private life and became the devices by which she would create her film.
Another aspect of the documentary “Love, Gilda” is the use of Gilda’s personal recordings as she chronicles her life. “Once I heard her voice, I wanted her to carry the piece.” D’Apolito used Radner’s familiar tone as a thread to link many of the visual and verbal remembrances. Filling in the gaps are thoughts and insights from many of Radner’s friends as well as excerpts from her diaries, some of which are read by past and present SNL cast members, including Amy Poehler, Bill Hader and Cecily Strong.
Some documentaries suffer from having to stretch material to achieve a standard running time and others, still, suffer from cramming in too much. D’Apolito accomplished a great feat of a balancing act. Never once is there a moment in “Love, Gilda” when you feel that there’s “too much personal life” and ‘not enough professional’ or ‘too many photos’ and ‘not enough video.’ With its easy storytelling style it’s hard to believe D’Apolito’s first feature only.
One of the more heart-warming aspects of the film focuses on Radner’s relationship with the late Gene Wilder. “I spent a day with Gene and he was very gentle.” Footage of interviews and home movies with the comedy couple accented with voice-overs from family members and Gilda herself reveal the happiness and sadness they both shared during their short marriage leading up to Gilda’s battle with cancer.
I asked D’Apolito “if Gilda were alive today, what would she be doing?” She responded, “My theory is she could have been a wonderful talk show host, much in the same way as an Ellen or an Oprah.” Considering Radner’s experience and flair for working in front of a live audience, I think D’Apolito’s is right on the money. As for Gilda’s legacy, D’Apolito feels that it has two-pronged meaning. “Her comedy and her battle with cancer are both inspiring.” She adds, “her spirit and her bravery.”
D’Apolito hopes the film will allow those who know Gilda to remember her and those who are just discovering her, to learn more about her. “Love, Gilda” recently won the Cinetopia Film Festival Audience Award. In addition to airing on CNN, the DVD, which contains forty minutes of extra bonus footage, is now available on both Amazon and iTunes.