The guys in the band adored her. She married guitarist G.E. Smith and Paul Shaffer was canned from The Blues Brothers movie, because he loyally committed to work on her album. Yet, Gilda Radner is inseparably connected in our collective memory to her second husband, Gene Wilder, even though their three films together were considered a middling lot. The nostalgia is potent when Lisa Dapolito surveys Radner’s life and comedy in Love, Gilda (trailer here), which opens this Friday in New York.
Documentaries like this really put pop culture in perspective. These days, Saturday Night Live is squarely part of the establishment, but during the early years, it was some of the hippest, edgiest stuff you could find on television. Among the original cast members, Radner was one of the biggest breakouts, but she remained plagued by her insecurities.
Dapolito scored access to a trove of audio diaries, journal entries, and letters that all confirm the film’s armchair psychology. Through Radner’s words and voice, as well as readings by her contemporary admirers, viewers get a vivid sense of her long-term issues, many of which she started to work through when she met her second husband, Wilder.
That is all well and good, but the real power of Love, Gilda comes from journey back back to the era of her prime. It reminds us when Radner was really one of the biggest names in comedy, period. Arguably, the late Wilder (who logically gets a good deal of attention too) was even bigger. Critics like to make 1970s all about the “New Hollywood” auteurs, but which do you watch more frequently, Shampoo and The Deer Hunter, or Blazing Saddles and Young Frankenstein?
Even though it was sort of documented in Mike Nichols’ performance film Gilda Live, people not living in New York during 1979 might not remember she also had a Broadway show. In retrospect, it was a clear forerunner to shows staged by the likes of Billy Crystal and John Leguizamo. It seems like a production featuring ribald songs and her popular characters, including Roseanne Roseannadanna, should have run forever, but apparently, she tired of it after 52 performances and the out-of-town previews featured in the film (because onerous union rules made filming on Broadway untenable).
Strangely, Dapolito spends little time on Radner’s legacy, despite the prominence of Gilda’s Club, the cancer support group co-founded by Wilder, and the posthumous success of her memoir. However, she does give a fair amount of time to Hanky Panky and Haunted Honeymoon, two likable and unnecessarily maligned films they made together, largely due the off-screen drama that occurred simultaneously.
Despite the funny clips, Love, Gilda is a sad film, because we know how it will end. Dapolito and the editors, Anne Alvergue and David Cohen do a nice job of assembling all the archival material and recently discovered recordings. As a result, it feels much more intimate than most docu-treatments. Recommended for Radner fans and anyone holding fondly nostalgic memories of late 1970s and early-to-mid 1980s pop culture, Love Gilda opens this Friday (9/21) in New York, at the Quad Cinema and the Landmark 57.