Gilda Radner was one of the stars of the original cast of Saturday Night Live. She was lively, to say the least – frenetic or hyperactive probably hits the mark better. Her personal cast of characters still sticks in the minds of people who watched that show. Roseanne Rosannadanna who exulted in the kinds of lurid details about human bodies that are still not often mentioned on TV; Emily Litella who misheard crucial details in the news, so she’d bluster about what’s wrong with violins on television; Lisa Loopner who grappled with her boyfriend Todd (Bill Murray) on the living room couch. Radner did memorable dances with comic Steve Martin, and with her comrades Lorraine Newman and Jane Curtin did turns as a backup singer. For those of us who watched the first years of SNL, Gilda Radner is at the core of our affections, and the later versions have never matched up.
And neither does Love, Gilda, a new film biography.
Love, Gilda feels dutiful and thorough, which can be deadly for a movie about a comedian. Home movies show Gilda Radner as a chubby kid in a comfortable family in Detroit. You watch her get older. Finally, come the SNL routines, but none of the clips feels quite long enough or full enough to give a rich sense of what Radner did on the show. So, the film often leaves you with a sense of incompletion or emptiness as it hurries along to its next sequence in its story of Gilda Radner.
The shape of a documentary has a lot to do with how you take it in, and the shape of Love, Gilda imitates so many other show-biz documentaries that the whole business comes off as too familiar. Of course, Radner is a unique figure – she’s a human being – but here you can’t avoid the sense that you’ve seen it all before: The onstage clown is sad and disturbed in her private life. That’s a cliché not a revelation. It’s also a cliché about the great talent dying young. The poetry of the stilling of the perpetual motion machine that was Gilda Radner could be affecting, but here you wonder why an original talent like Gilda Radner inspired such a drab, paint-by-numbers rehash of her life.
Radner was often depressed; she was also bulimic, maybe because her mother pushed her to eat less when she was an overweight kid, or maybe not. In a postcard to her mother, Radner writes that she’s just married musician G.E. Smith. So, she hadn’t told her mother much about her life, and apparently hadn’t seen her in a long time. Were they at odds? Love, Gilda doesn’t peer deeply into such things. Radner had affairs with many of the men with whom she worked. Is there something to understand there? The movie is just good enough to make you wish it asked more of itself. Instead it marches through her life, like it has a train to catch or somewhere else to be.
Bill Hader and Amy Poehler, both from SNL, read passages from Radner’s journals, while images of Radner’s writing sit on screen. Some of the selections are flat and some beg for attention, which pretty much sums up Love, Gilda. SNL has grown tired and self-satisfied, when it once offered a challenge to the fundamental nature of television itself. Love, Gilda might look at that change. What did SNL bring to the world that it caused so much fuss? And what did the career of Gilda Radner mean? Love, Gilda doesn’t put Radner’s life in enough perspective. Maybe it’s made for people who just want a nostalgic reminder of her famous skits and characters, but mostly the picture offers the act of seeing without understanding, as if to say, “Well, we got that done. Next?”
Radner died of ovarian cancer and did serious work for cancer awareness and treatment. But she also left an artistic legacy, and that still needs attention.