One of life’s great disappointments happened when a then-girlfriend told of trying to surprise me with a phone call from Gilda Radner.
This was when I was in college but before cellphones, so the Queen of Saturday Night Live would have been calling on the landline of the two-bedroom apartment I shared with three other dudes.
My ex’s father had a business relationship as well as friendship with Radner, so it did not take much convincing to get her to make a prank call to a complete stranger. But alas, no one was there to pick up.
To put this blow in proper perspective, you have to understand how huge Radner was at the time, especially to late teens and early twentysomethings such as myself who had not only seen the first episode of what was then-called NBC’s Saturday Night—I even recall the promos with the first guest host, George Carlin—but had also caught every subsequent show either live or via summer reruns.
Filled with drug humor, rock & roll excess, and stinging satire of the ruling class, Saturday Night Live seemed as if it were being beamed directly into the brains of those from my generation, the only humans who could fully understand and appreciate what Lorne Michaels created by raiding the talent from the National Lampoon Radio Hour.
A huge reason for SNL’s earliest success was Radner, who was the first Not Ready for Prime Time Player Michaels hired. I did not know that nor of the improvisational genius’ initial struggles to get air time until just the other night when I saw Love, Gilda, producer/director Lisa D’Apolito’s heartwarming and heart-aching documentary that opens in Santa Ana on Friday.
That the late comedienne would have to fight to get onscreen is stunning when you consider how beloved her totally original characters were (and still are to many of us), from the nerdy teen Lisa Loopner to the grossly descriptive Roseanne Roseannadanna to the confused senior citizen Emily Litella. Another surprise in D’Apolito’s film is that the elderly character was based on “Dibby,” the nanny who raised Radner in her well-off family’s Detroit home.
Another discovery is that while she was a theater geek in high school and at the University of Michigan, she was not a singer nor a trained dancer, which is amazing considering some of her best bits involved belting out tunes and hoofing. Those were on display in Radner’s 1979 one-woman Broadway show, which, despite its success, was an experience she never wanted to repeat.
We know this because Radner tells us that and so much more, in her own recorded words featured in Love, Gilda. Normally, a journalist would wince when discovering a project was made with the full participation of an estate, but a complete portrait of such a complicated person would have been impossible without the audiotapes, home video and diaries the filmmaker was given access to.
There is no sugarcoating here. Radner is heard being quite frank about her depression, childlessness, unluckiness in love and non-leading-lady appearance. She is brutally honest about her childhood weight issues and the eating disorders, health problems and the Big C that would follow.
Friends you recognize (such as Paul Shaffer, Martin Short and Laraine Newman, who shared an SNL dressing room with her and Jane Curtin) and those you don’t (including writers Anne Beatts, Alan Zweibel and Rosie Shuster) comment not only on Radner’s brilliance, but also what she told them about her darkest days.
Any remaining gaps in the narrative are filled in by her diary entries that often surprise those who were enlisted to read them, including the more recent SNL cast members Radner influenced such as Amy Poehler, Maya Rudolph and Bill Hader.
Gut-wrenching are the videos Radner’s second husband, Gene Wilder, shot while his wife was undergoing cancer treatments. She thought she would beat it, but even after it became apparent she was in a losing battle—we lost Radner on May 20, 1989, to ovarian cancer; she was only 42—she insisted on keeping the camera rolling to help others dealing with fatal diseases.
As Radner touchingly explains, when most everything else was stripped away, she realized all she had left to give was humor. Laughter may not always heal, but it can ease the pain. After Radner’s death, and through a promise kept by Wilder, the world also received organizations dedicated to fighting cancer.
It would have been great to personally get to know Radner, as much as you can get to know someone in a surprise, 45-second phone call initiated by your girlfriend. I should ring up D’Apolito to thank her for giving me (and all of you) so much more of Radner with Love, Gilda, which will put tears in your eyes and lumps in your throat, as well as laughs in your belly and smiles on your face.
Love, Gilda was produced and directed by Lisa D’Apolito. Opens Fri. at Edwards South Coast Village, Santa Ana.
Matt Coker has been engaging, enraging and entertaining readers of newspapers, magazines and websites for decades. He spent the first 13 years of his career in journalism at daily newspapers before “graduating” to OC Weekly in 1995 as the paper’s first calendar editor. He went on to be managing editor, executive editor and is now senior staff writer.