Feels tonally inconsistent with Radner’s brief, luminous career.
Of all the “Saturday Night Live” comedians who have died young, Gilda Radner’s life feels the most tragic. Whereas Belushi and Farley were cut down by their own excesses and Phil Hartman was killed unexpectedly, Radner’s protracted battle with ovarian cancer meant she lived to see her career wither due to an illness that diminished her quality of life as it slowly killed her. There’s really nothing funny about a comedic force of nature like Radner succumbing to a painful disease, and Lisa Dapolito’s affectionate documentary Love, Gilda, like so much other retrospection on the first female star of “SNL,” is a far more somber portrait of the comedian than a humorous one.
As implied by its title, Love, Gilda relies on personal writings by Radner—often read aloud by subsequent “SNL” cast members like Amy Poehler and Maya Rudolph, who directly cite her influence on them—to imbue the story of her life and career with a personal touch. And yet, perhaps as a sign of the culture in which Radner came up, Dapolito’s film portrays Radner as a woman who struggled with body image issues and often defined herself by the men in her life. The film implies that some of these struggles may have been shaped in part from the fact she was born to relatively old parents—her mother was over 40 and her dad was nearly 50 at the time of her birth—and that she lost her father, with whom she was especially close, to brain cancer in her adolescence.
As Radner rose to fame through the Second City comedy troupe based in Toronto and then as an original cast member of Lorne Michaels’ “Not Ready for Prime Time Players,” she struggled with disordered eating stemming from a childhood in which her mother fretted about Radner’s above average weight and even had a doctor prescribe her diet pills. And true as it may be, the film belabors the point that Radner dated who’s who of comedy during her time in the limelight, at one point even highlighting that she “dated all of the Ghostbusters”—while also mentioning Rick Moranis and yet conspicuously excluding Ernie Hudson from that equation. It’s difficult to imagine a similar emphasis being placed on the numerous and fleeting relationships of a male celebrity, and yet surprisingly little time is spent focusing on her marriage with Gene Wilder—in part because Radner’s cancer diagnosis came down just two years after the wedding, at a point when her career highlights were all behind her.
Though the film offers a touching portrayal of Radner’s ebullient spirit and comedic dynamism, Love, Gilda’s emphasis on her personal correspondence and journaling perhaps leans too heavily on the star’s frailties and insecurities without providing much insight into what truly fueled her to the massive success she achieved. Instead, the film—which features current stars like Melissa McCarthy choking up while reading Radner’s words in talking-head interview scenes that occasionally feel contrived—tugs at heartstrings more than it tickles funny bones, which feels tonally inconsistent with Radner’s brief, luminous career, even if tragedy has come to define the comedian’s legacy.