The American comedian Gilda Radner died prematurely in 1989 at 42 when she succumbed to cancer. What a loss it was to the entertainment industry. She had so much more to contribute.
Lisa D’Apolito’s biopic, Gilda, which opens in Toronto on September 21 at the Hot Docs Bloor Cinema, brings her back for an fleeting encore. Through her own words from diaries and newly discovered audio tapes and by way of interviews with former colleagues, we’re reminded of the formidable talents she possessed in such abundance.
Radner made her reputation on the popular satirical television show Saturday Night Live, which eventually amassed an audience in the tens of millions. Radner, the first SNL performer to be selected by producer Lorne Michaels, played goofy characters such as Lisa Loopner and Emily Litella, and most definitely left a strong impression.
D’Apolito’s film unfolds in chronological order from her formative years in Detroit to her final ones in Los Angeles.
Born into an affluent Jewish family whose father owned apartment hotels and whose mother insisted on spending winters in Miami Beach, Radner was drawn to comedy at an early age. As a child, she loved to wear costumes and “pretend” to be someone else, such as the movie actress Lucille Ball. She particularly enjoyed performing for her father, whom she adored. He died of a brain tumour in 1960, when she was only 14 years old. His passing devastated her.
At the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor, she majored in theater. She never graduated because she fell in love and ran off to Toronto with a Canadian sculptor. Radner took a job at a theater box office, but yearned to be on the stage. She appeared in a children’s play, but soon landed a role in Godspell. Second City, a local company, took her on as a regular, launching her successful career as a comedian.
Radner, who thrived in this milieu, defined comedy as “hitting on the truth before the other guy thinks of it.”
After a stint with The National Lampoon Show, she was hired by be SNL, where she met, among others, Chevy Chase, Amy Poehler and Bill Hader. They offer recollections of Radner as an up-and-coming star. According to Michaels, “she played a version of herself” on the show.
SNL catapulted her to celebrityhood, but the hectic pace took a physical and mental toll. Reinventing herself as a movie actress, she appeared in the 1982 film Hanky Panky, where she met Gene Wilder, whom she married after ditching her first husband, a musician.
Diagnosed with ovarian cancer, Radner submitted to chemotherapy. Home movies of Radner in the hospital drive home the point that, though very ill, she was still in high spirits. Much to her relief, she went into remission and seemed to bounce back from adversity. Appearing on The Gary Shandling Show, she told the host she was glad to be making people laugh again. Alas, the cancer returned.
In Gilda, a well-rounded documentary, D’Apolito presents a balanced picture of a gifted entertainer whose life was snuffed out all too soon.