Review: 'Love, Gilda' is a sensitive, intimate look at life and death of Gilda Radner

Last Updated by Chip Chandler on
Gilda Radner is lovingly profiled in "Love, Gilda."
Courtesy Magnolia Pictures

By Chip Chandler — Producer

"I made them laugh before they hurt me," late comedian Gilda Radner says in voiceover in the new documentary about her life, Love, Gilda. "Then I realized what comedy is. It's hitting on the truth before the other guy thinks of it."

At her best, that's precisely what Radner did: Dig up her own woes and neuroses to make others laugh. And at its best, that's what Love, Gilda does, too: Excavate the traumas and issues that made Radner so relatable and so funny. 

Director Lisa D'Apolito offers an intimate look at Radner's life, drawing from Radner's diaries and handwritten letters, home movies from childhood and her adult life, audiotapes recorded for her memoir It's Always Something or of old interviews and more. D'Apolito's smartest touch is having comedians who Radner influenced – Amy Poehler, Bill Hader, Maya Rudolph and Melissa McCarthy, in particular — read Radner's letters and journal entries; we can quickly see how greatly Radner impacted them and how much they relate to her personal struggles with being a woman in comedy, with body issues and more.

Radner's battle with bulimia and, later, with the ovarian cancer that took her life are sensitively chronicled, and D'Apolito makes plenty of time to detail Radner's professional rise and eventual realization of her pioneering status as a woman in comedy. That's a mantle that Radner wore uncomfortably and, frankly, inconsistently. Early on, we hear her say, "My biggest motivation has always been love," and that's as true when she dropped out of college to follow a sculptor to Toronto as it is when she eventually meets Gene Wilder and does everything she can to marry him. 

Along the way, and almost in spite of herself, Radner made comedy history — which, perhaps, the film could have explored in greater depth. She was the first person Lorne Michaels cast in Saturday Night Live, and her star power is a key reason it became such a huge success, but women notoriously have struggled in the SNL grind from its inception. Michaels talks lovingly about Radner, as do Lorraine Newman and (somewhat surprisingly) Chevy Chase; you're left wanting to hear more from other original cast members like Dan Aykroyd and Bill Murray (both of whom she dated) and Jane Curtain. 

I wanted more from the contemporary comedy stars, too; their participation drops off significantly as the movie continues, though you'll want to stick around after the credits for sure.

But D'Apolito quite wisely lets Radner tell her own story throughout, from childhood memories through her ultimately tragic battle with cancer. Love, Gilda is as gentle and unexpectedly deep as its subject, making us feel her loss all the more. (NR; click here for showtimes at Premiere Cinemas Westgate Mall 6, 7701 W. Interstate 40)

 

 

 

Chip Chandler is a producer for Panhandle PBS and a member of GALECA. He can be contacted at Chip.Chandler@actx.edu, at @chipchandler1 on Twitter and on Facebook.

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