Gene Wilder and Gilda Radner

I’m in a warm room, mid-afternoon sun streaming in through poorly obscured windows. The brown couch is ratty and well loved, but comfortable in a way that fits the room. I’m flipping through photo albums and watching grainy home movies on an old, dusty TV. Sitting on the couch next to me is Gilda Radner, pointing to her favorite photos, laughing at how silly she looked in her Roseanne Roseannadanna costume, and sharing stories about the people that joined her in the photos. Lisa D’Apolito’s documentary Love, Gilda transported me to times, places, and feelings that I never would have experienced, but it nevertheless made me feel as close to Radner as if she were my cousin or aunt: close and nostalgic, but with a sense of mystery that there are things you can’t ever fully understand about a person.

Love, Gilda, a documentary about the funny, sad, and ultimately love-filled life of original Saturday Night Live cast member, Gilda Radner, opened this year’s San Francisco Jewish Film Festival. The documentary tells the story of Radner’s early life, the beginnings of her comedy career, her rising stardom on SNL, her adult life and other projects after SNL, and her decline and untimely death from ovarian cancer at 43.

Gilda Radner’s life was full of love and especially full of laughter. The film is a detailed scrapbook of memories, complete with clips from her SNL sketches, home movies, photos, newspaper headlines, personal recordings and journal entries from Radner herself, telling the story of her life as only she could tell it. Interspersed within these memories are testimonies from past and present SNL cast members and writers, comic actors, friends and family. Alan Zweibel, a writer for SNL, talks about spending long dinners writing jokes with her, trying to make each other laugh. Many of Radner’s characters, including the opinionated Roseanne Roseannadanna and nerdy Lisa Loopner, were loud, full of movement, and energetic. As a result, past cast members with fruitful careers after SNL looked starstruck when they were asked to read from some jokes and stories from Radner’s notebooks. They gushed with admiration when discussing how Radner’s bubbly and zany characters influenced their own physicality and boldness in their own comedy. Martin Short also recalls feeling sorry for Radner at an audition for seemingly embarrassing herself by singing “Zip-a-Dee Doo Dah” in pigtails, that is until she got the part. Through these pieces of history, we see the topsy-turvy, broken, silly, heartbreaking, and hopeful realities of her life, but never far from the low points are the reminders that Radner was loved for her legacy of laughter that she brought into the world. These nostalgic moments weave together to show the journey of her life, and how this influenced the lives and comedy styles of her fans and successors on the show.

The documentary takes into account that even low points in a person’s life are worth mentioning because they make us human and can be relatable to those with similar struggles. It is difficult for another person to fully explain what someone is going through, so Radner speaks for herself through recordings and journal entries. Like other human beings, Radner struggled; she struggled with an eating disorder, her public appearance, her romantic relationships, and her mental health. She was not a perfect person in the slightest, but rather than let her hardships come off as scandals due to her stardom, use of her own words presents her as a normal human that the world happened to love. We can see in her journal entries that she was not always smiling, even though the visual memories that the film uses are often from happier times. Even when these moments are juxtaposed with scandal-like headlines or silly SNL clips, they show how what people on the outside see may not show the reality of what someone is feeling and experiencing. Moments of her personal hardships connect her with viewers and fans that may have had similar experiences to her. Regardless of the struggles that we do not get to see her actively coping with, the documentary includes Radner’s sometimes funny coping mechanisms when she was fighting cancer. She joked about her illness and made television appearances while in remission where she talked about fighting cancer in a lighthearted manner. In this way, comedy was deeply rooted in Radner’s way of life and was for her and others a way to make it through hard times. Portraying her happiness along with her struggles tells a story about how it is fine to feel and be broken sometimes, but that it is also possible to pick yourself back up again. Radner was a shining star on the television screen, but keeping her voice present in the story of her life is part of what makes her feel close.

The film itself is very personal and does not use much historical context of the time she was active. Within a background of the second-wave feminist movement, the film does not depict Radner’s life as affected at all by the time period. Instead, we see how Radner truly earned her place in the comedy world because she was just that good. According to the film, she was never cast or not cast in productions or SNL sketches because she was a woman. If she was included, it was because her talent was necessary to the production or sketch. Despite the lack of mention of protesting the patriarchy, representation on television matters; when it comes to dismantling the 1950s stereotype of women as homemakers, Radner and other female cast members proved that they could be unmarried, unrefined, and happy as working women. There were still few women in comedy at the time and having comedians like Radner on SNL was helpful to fighting patriarchal and sexist views.

Gilda Radner as Roseanne Roseannadanna

In the zany way that her characters conducted themselves, Radner seemed to transcend her gender. Although she says in one of her recordings that she was definitely a woman and wanted to be seen as one, her comedy was not that of a traditional woman. She did want to eventually marry and have a family, but her representation as a comedian and working woman transcended prevalent stereotypes. While the film misses out on some historical details that could have given more background to her story, keeping the narrative personal in this way highlights how she laid foundation for other comedians regardless of gender. The film chose not to focus that much of its attention on Radner as an important female fixture in comedy, and it could have, considering that comedy as well as other fields in the entertainment industry are dominated by men. Still, the focus on her influence on different kinds of comedians shows that her comedy style transcended gender, which fits the current context in which the documentary itself was produced: people are starting to become more aware that gender is more complicated than the body parts a person is born with. This choice is justified in that the film wants viewers to know that Radner was a comedian, but it was not her femaleness that defined her humor.

The documentary never neglects to point out that in the highest points of her SNL career and in her lowest points before her death, Radner was an incredibly unique and loved individual that brought countless smiles and peals of laughter to television screens across America. Radner’s work was important because it laid the foundation for other comedians to be zany, physical, and fearless in their comedy styles. Although the film focuses little on the history behind the time she was active and the importance of a female comedian rising to stardom in the way that she did, it approaches Radner’s femininity and femaleness as having little effect on her career. Most of all, the conglomeration of memories tied together with Radner’s own words gives back to Radner and her legacy by giving her a voice in her own story. The film was Radner’s love letter to her fans as much as it was a love letter to Radner. For the amount of love that is shared by both Radner and the friends, family, and fans that helped her bring her story to life, the film is appropriately signed: Love, Gilda.

Robin Kopf is an editorial intern at Tikkunmagazine. She is a recent graduate with honors from University of California-Santa Cruz with a BA in Literature.

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