(NR) Score: 3 1/2 stars ***1/2 out of 4 ***
For five years beginning in 1975, Gilda Radner was arguably the highest-profile comedienne on the planet. Since then she has become an icon and the inspiration for scads of female comics following in her wake.
Like far too many humorists, Radner was a person wracked with insecurities and self-doubt which only grew in size after her dubious 1980 departure from the show (NBC's "Saturday Night Live," [SNL]) which made her a household name.
Comprised of stills, archival footage, home movies, diaries and recently-discovered audio tapes, first-time director Lisa Dapolito (one of Henry Hill’s young daughters in "Goodfellas") pieces together a brief (86 minutes) but thorough biographical documentary of a complex artist from cradle to grave.
Born in Detroit in 1946, Radner’s problems with self-image began before her teen years because of binge eating. This alarmed her mother to such a degree that she had a doctor prescribe Dexedrine to her daughter at the age of 10. Known only at the time to her closest friends, Radner battled with Bulimia and Anorexia during her stint on "SNL" and at one point her weight dropped to a mere 93 pounds.
In 1972 Radner left Michigan, moving with her sculptor boyfriend to Toronto, Canada where she landed her first acting gig as a member of the "Godspell" cast along with other budding performers Paul Schaeffer, Martin Short, Eugene Levy and Andrea Martin.
Most of these people soon formed the Chicago-based "Second City" where Radner caught the attention of John Belushi, then a writer/performer on the "National Lampoon Radio Hour" who was putting together the stage production "Lemmings." Belushi needed "a girl" for the show and drafted Radner who soon joined the “Radio Hour” creative team.
To Dapolito’s immense credit, she dedicates enough but not too much time on Radner’s "SNL" years and was able to include recent interviews from a few (Laraine Newman, Chevy Chase, Bill Murray) of her surviving cast mates who offer keen and sobering insight.
The fact that Radner was the first person picked by producer/show runner Lorne Michaels to form what would become the Not Ready for Prime Time Players speaks volumes.
Scuttlebutt regarding the abhorrent, behind-the-scenes sexist treatment of female talent from both "National Lampoon" and "SNL" is ear-pinning and perhaps because as it was indeed only innuendo and not proven fact, Dapolito wisely chose not to bring it up.
Sadly, also not addressed is the reason or reasons the entire remaining original cast of "SNL" was let go after season five (in 1979).
While Chase, Belushi, and Dan Aykroyd had already left for careers in feature films, Radner, Newman, Jane Curtin and Garrett Morris did not, and dropping them was not only a disloyal slap in the face but also began a karma-inspired creative and ratings slide which lasted five full years until Michaels’ return — which somewhat righted the sinking ship.
Many of those who came of age during those first five years of "SNL" would argue that the show never recovered or got even close to matching its initial, irreverent glory.
The sudden departure from "SNL" provided a good news/bad news scenario for Radner, pushing her to become "her own woman" as it were. It is during this stretch of the film where Dapolito shines brightest. Radner’s one-woman Broadway show — notable because of its racy material (including the song "Let’s Talk Dirty to the Animals") — was a huge success but the Mike Nichols-directed film of it and the accompanying soundtrack album flopped big time.
It was also during this period Radner married guitarist G.E. Smith, a future "SNL" band leader/member. Dapolito handles this portion of the film with careful grace and delicacy while suggesting that Radner was better at being part of an ensemble rather than as a solo act.
Another well-received but poorly attended traveling play ("Lunch Hour") came and went.
Yet, this period also included the start of Radner’s relationship with Gene Wilder, a kindred spirit who became her second husband and marked the beginnings of an illness which, in a manner not unlike that of former "SNL" musical guest/performer Frank Zappa a few years later, was horrifyingly misdiagnosed.
Just how Radner handled her illness is beyond inspirational, reflecting her ever-constant, glass half full perspective. Whether it was the premature death of her father, her lifelong battle with body image, a mercurial professional career, her mostly failed romantic entanglements (which included Short, Murray and his half-brother Brian Doyle-Murray), Radner kept the sunny side up yet never in a "Pollyanna" sort of way but rather with stinging, barbed-wit.
If Radner had to take an early exit she wasn’t going to do so without a fight and it would be accompanied by copious amounts of gallows humor.
"Love, Gilda" should be required viewing for any aspiring comic and/or those in the throes of a terminal disease. For a brief time, Gilda Radner led a charmed life and the bookends at the start and end of her existence would crush most of us, yet she handled all of it with a smile.
We should all be so lucky.
Michael Clark has written for over 30 local and national media outlets and is currently the only newspaper-based film critic providing original content in the Atlanta Top 10 media marketplace and he recently co-founded the Atlanta Film Critics Circle. Over the last two decades, Mr. Clark has written over 3,500 movie reviews and film related articles for the Gwinnett Daily Post and is one of the scant few conservative-minded U.S. critics. To read more of his reports — Click Here Now.
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