Film & Television

‘Love, Gilda’ Remembers SNL’s Original Funny Girl

Award-winning actress and writer Amy Poehler was barely four years old when Saturday Night Live launched in 1975, introducing the world to Gilda Radner. But that didn’t stop Poehler from eventually idolizing Radner or from making a case for her relevance today. On her blog “Amy Poehler’s Smart Girls,” she explains.

“I think young people have a lot to learn from Gilda because I think she is a combination of ‘Wow, look at this magical creature that kind of sprung to bring everyone joy, and look at how natural she is.’ But wait; actually, underneath that was a lot of struggle and a person who didn’t feel that way. So, she’s like you. She doesn’t feel beautiful and perfect and funny and beloved all the time. Women and girls are still constantly challenged to figure out how to be themselves in situations. Gilda felt like herself all the time. Even when she played characters, you could feel this, like a laser that would shoot out of everyone that she played, that would connect from your heart to hers.”

Love, Gilda, the new documentary and first feature film by Lisa D’Apolito, is certainly full of heart. The director was inspired after volunteering at Gilda’s Club in lower Manhattan, one of 18 community centers for people with cancer, founded by Radner’s widowed husband, Gene Wilder, after her death. “When I would interview people, there was such a big, deep connection to Gilda, and I thought her legacy was so unique, because obviously, she was one of the groundbreaking comedians, but she is also helping people in a really important way.”

D’Apolito spent four years on the film, accessing not only Radner’s familiar sketches from SNL, but also her letters, journals, family photos, and home movies. Much of the narration of Love, Gilda is in Radner’s own voice, pulled from audiotapes as she worked on her autobiography. The result is an especially intimate portrait of a smart, funny, determined, often neurotic, always courageous woman.

For those of us who watched the early seasons of SNL, Love, Gilda is a marvelous trip down memory lane. For younger viewers, it will, I hope, inspire them to seek out her most iconic sketches on YouTube.

Gilda Susan Radner was born in 1946 in Detroit, the youngest child of an affluent Jewish family. She was a natural performer from an early age, craving nothing more than her father’s applause and approval. The family relocated to Miami every winter, which meant that Gilda was taken in and out of multiple schools each year. She tended to be a chubby child, and learned that she could avoid being the target of bullies by employing self-deprecating humor. “Funny,” she later wrote, “is saying the truth before the other guy does.”

Her mother was less amused, and put young Gilda on diet pills before she even hit puberty. Radner’s relationship with food remained an unhealthy one throughout her life; she was alternately starving herself or binging and purging. A poem in one of her journals succinctly sums up her struggle:

Sugar can spin into pink cotton candy
    And sit on a stick like a captured cloud.

    Then abracadabra!
    It isn’t allowed.

While attending an all-girls high school, Radner discovered theater. She enrolled at the University of Michigan, but left to follow a sculptor boyfriend to Toronto. There, she briefly flirted with the role of homemaker, but soon found herself drawn back to the stage, costarring in Godspell with Martin Short, Eugene Levy, and Andrea Martin, and joining the Second City comedy company with by-then-boyfriend Short. Throughout her career, Radner’s professional and personal lives were impossibly tangled. In Love, Gilda, we hear her joke that she could never watch the movie Ghostbusters because it starred three of her ex-colleague/boyfriends: Bill Murray, Dan Aykroyd, and Harold Ramis.

John Belushi lured her away from Second City and down to New York to play “the girl” in the National Lampoon Radio Hour. It was a pretty fair description of the incidental role women played in comedy troupes at the time. Radner, however, stood out, and the following year, she was the very first person Lorne Michaels cast in what would become the longest-running sketch comedy show in television history.

Radner was one of only three female members of the original SNL cast. There was an inherent sexism in the way the producers, writers, and players worked, and Radner did what she could to level things. When she accepted an Emmy in 1978, the solidarity she felt was obvious. “I share this award, like I share my dressing room, with Jane Curtin and Laraine Newman.”

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