Review: Love, Gilda (2018)
Title: Love, Gilda
Director: Lisa Dapolito
Gilda Radner (archival footage), Martin Short, Laraine Newman, Amy Poehler, Melissa McCarthy, Paul Shaffer, Chevy Chase
Walking into this documentary, I had the total opposite of a bias – I felt completely neutral (although not disinterested in the subject matter). I was born only about a year before Gilda Radner passed away and was only marginally familiar with her as an SNL alum. I had heard the name before and could have told you about a few of her standout characters but knew little to nothing about Radner's life before or after her SNL fame. I also generally feel ambivalent about celebrity documentaries (especially those completed posthumously), as it is a genre that - in my opinion - tends to veer between exploitative and cloyingly sentimental.
In a Nutshell:
Using archival footage, diary passages (some of which are read
aloud by current comedians like Amy Poehler and Melissa McCarthy), audio recordings, and interviews with colleagues, friends, and family members, Love, Gilda attempts to tell Gilda Radner's story as much as possible from her own point of view.
Starting with Radner's childhood in Detroit, Love, Gilda tells her story - even the depressing and unflattering parts - right up to her early death from ovarian cancer. In Q&A with the audience (I saw the film at the Cinetopia Film Festival), director Dapolito said that she came to the project by way of shooting promotional videos for Gilda's Club, a charity for cancer patients and their friends and families, founded in honor of the late Gilda Radner by her husband Gene Wilder. Dapolito mentioned that the conversations she had with members of Gilda's Club made her curious about Gilda herself, which is when she started doing some archival work with materials donated by Gilda's brother.
Watching the documentary, it is clear that this monumental labor of love - and testament to the adoration and joy that Gilda inspired - was undertaken by the right director and for the right reasons. Although the film doesn't shy away from tough conversations - about Radner's eating disorder, for which she was hospitalized during the height of her SNL fame, for example - it never sensationalizes or degrades Gilda's legacy. Ultimately, the power of the film lies in allowing Gilda to speak for herself - to the extent that that's possible with this sort of posthumous project - through journals, archival footage, and audio recordings.
A mix of these materials, plus archival footage of Radner's SNL skits and other film/television appearances, and interviews with her family, friends, and colleagues all contribute to a nuanced depiction of a complex woman who led an interesting and full life. Although we can never really know the 'full story,' the spirit embodied by Love, Gilda is that of "delicious ambiguity" that Gilda herself mentioned in her book, It's Always Something, where she wrote: "I wanted a perfect ending. Now I've learned, the hard way, that some poems don't rhyme, and some stories don't have a clear beginning, middle, and end. Life is about not knowing, having to change, taking the moment and making the best of it, without knowing what's going to happen next."
Michael Radner, Gilda's brother, deserves a lot of credit for his role in preserving the diaries, home videos, and audio tapes that became the basis for this documentary, and for being willing to share his sister's story - warts and all - with the world.
To Go, Rent, or to Netflix:
I was lucky enough to catch this documentary as part of the Cinetopia film festival, at a packed screening in the DIA. Luckily, the doc has been picked up by distributor Magnolia Pictures following a successful festival circuit, and it will be premiering in thirty theaters across the nation in September. No word yet on whether the film will screen in the metro Detroit area again, but if it does, I'd strongly recommend catching this in the theater.