It’s no easy task to find a fresh way to approach a familiar face like comedian Gilda Radner, but director Lisa D’Apolito does a wonderful job ushering us through the highs and lows of the beloved icon’s life in her documentary “Love, Gilda.”
D’Apolito worked directly with Radner’s estate, and was lucky to have access to a trove of personal information. Despite the fact that this is her first feature film, she uses her archival sources with uncommon dexterity.
Home movies introduce us to a little girl who’s always mugging for the camera, a trait that continues into and after high school and college. We travel with Radner while she moves to Toronto, makes her debut in “Godspell,” and dates an equally mischievous Martin Short.
Then we head for New York, after John Belushi calls in 1974 and invites her to be “the girl in the show,” the latter being the National Lampoon Radio Hour.
You may know what comes next, but the footage of her “Saturday Night Live” sketches feels as inventive as ever. She was the very first performer cast for the show, and it’s purely joyful to watch her throw her whole self into characters like Roseanne Roseannadanna, Emily Litella and Lisa Loopner.
Lorne Michaels, Laraine Newman and Chevy Chase show up to reminisce briefly, as do former staff writers Rosie Shuster and Anne Beatts. But the film could have used stronger representation from the early days of “SNL”; it’s hard not to miss Radner’s absent castmates Jane Curtin, Dan Aykroyd and, especially, Bill Murray (whom she dated during the show’s run).
A broader sense of background might have been helpful, too. Radner was a trailblazer who remains immensely relevant in the Time’s Up era, and it would have been appropriate to further contextualize her status as one of the few women working in comedy in the 1970s. “SNL” was a notoriously difficult environment, and she faced systemic sexism.
As Newman once said, “Jane and I and Gilda shared a dressing room until the third year. The boys always had their own … And Gilda used to make this joke about how when we were tired we would have to split a couch three ways.” But we don’t hear much of this, nor do we learn enough about how she dealt with the challenges of being a rare pioneer.
One area in which her femininity is given particular charge is in the history of her eating disorders. She was teased for being overweight as a child, and her mother and doctor had her on diet pills before she hit her teens. As she notes in her diary, “Because I’m not a perfect example of my gender, I decided to become funny.”
Her insecurities are given more import after she moves on from “SNL,” checks into a hospital to deal with anorexia and bulimia, and experiences some professional setbacks.
And then the anvil falls. As an emotional Tina Fey observed when introducing the film at its premiere at the Tribeca Film Festival in April, we’re already aware of how this story will end. But the impact comes harder still because D’Apolito so deftly weaves Radner’s presence into every aspect of the movie.
In addition to archival interviews and performances, she uses the memories of those who were there — including Short, Paul Shaffer and executive producer Alan Zweibel — to flesh out the past. She also intersperses Radner’s voice through audio diaries and touching footage shot by her late husband, Gene Wilder.
And instead of asking younger stars to offer typical talking-head praise, she uses their presence to further illuminate Radner’s own words. Each section of the film is multilayered in different ways. But it’s especially moving to see comedians she’s inspired — like Amy Poehler, Maya Rudolph, Melissa McCarthy, and Bill Hader — read her journals and letters with an awe that’s made easy to understand.
Despite the breadth of material, the film is beautifully edited and paced, with little of the filler so often seen in biographical documentaries. The soundtrack (which includes several songs performed by Radner) is well-chosen, and minor visual flourishes add a sweet personal touch.
Most crucially, D’Apolito allows her subject to guide the story from start to finish. Radner’s gentle spirit and wise observations connect each chapter, bringing us into her life with an unusual intimacy. Hers is a complex and bittersweet story, but what you’ll remember most is the impossible radiance of her smile.