Unlike many of the performers from Saturday Night Live‘s golden age, Gilda Radner never successfully transitioned to film or sitcoms—largely because she spent the better part of the 1980s battling ovarian cancer, to which she finally succumbed in 1989. She left behind, though, not only a legacy at SNL, but a wealth of letters, diaries, audio recordings, and an autobiography. Using this material as a foundation, Lisa Dapolito’s Love, Gilda compiles an intensely personal look at Radner’s life, and it’s successful at humanizing an icon and celebrating her hard-won success, even if it doesn’t provide a particularly trenchant analysis of what it was that made her such an iconic performer.
Radner was perhaps the most popular among SNL‘s original cast, and as such became a template for the kind of performer who would find success on the sketch comedy show. The colorful characters Radner inhabited, like the brash and disheveled news commentator Rosanne Rosannadanna, were successfully fueled by Radner’s manic energy. Her characters’ overwrought exuberance was an expression of the performer’s personality, and audiences were drawn to Radner in large part because she seemed to be having so much fun. This model has been repeated countless times in SNL‘s four-plus decades, and one can recognize Radner’s influence in such classic characters as Chris Farley’s Matt Foley and Molly Shannon’s Mary Katherine Gallagher.
While some of the story it assembles goes through familiar actor-biography motions—the precocious child performer, the psychological travails of the troubled artist—Love, Gilda privileges Radner’s voice in a way that distinguishes the documentary from other, more nostalgic looks at SNL‘s nascent days. Using diary entries read by actors, archival tapes, and the audiobook of Radner’s autobiography It’s Always Something, Dapolito’s film manages the trick of making it seem as if Radner is telling her own story.
Some of Radner’s contemporaries—including Martin Short, Laraine Newman, and Chevy Chase—appear briefly to share anecdotes about their working relationships with her, but it’s Radner’s own words that speak most ardently to the contradictions of being a prominent woman in the exploding ‘70s comedy scene and how that was a hard-won, liberating position that came with its own pressures and exclusions. In a diary entry the film highlights from the height of her fame, Radner captures this dichotomy in affecting, metaphorical language: “I’m a rising star with heavy chains attaching me to a hard ground.” Love, Gilda‘s success is due to the way it relies on Radner’s often elegant words to relay her experience of female stardom.