NEW YORK — When Tina Fey introduced “Love, Gilda,” the opening night film of this year’s Tribeca Film Festival, she was perhaps a little too honest. To a capacity crowd at New York’s Beacon Theater, she got emotional, explaining just how much the documentary’s subject, Gilda Radner, meant to her.
“She was our Michelle Obama,” she joked explaining how she and fellow female “Saturday Night Live” alumni like Amy Poehler, Maya Rudolph and Rachel Dratch revered the late comedienne.
Her devotion was genuine, but in setting up Lisa D’Apolito’s film, she mentioned that she’d had access to a pre-premiere peek.
“I watched it on a link on my phone in 10 or 15 minute segments on taxi rides,” she said, getting a big laugh.
But as with all jokes, it comes from a place of unexpected truth. “Love, Gilda” isn’t a real movie. It’s a collection of clips and complimentary remarks about an extremely talented woman, laid out like campaign video. There’s no doubt that D’Apolito loves Gilda, and as a result, this movie is pointless and anodyne.
Working with Radner’s brother, D’Apolito had access to audio tapes and diaries. We hear some of her inner thoughts — growing up in suburban Detroit, losing her father at the age of 12, college and theater troupes in the late 1960s and finally New York to launch “Saturday Night Live.”
We see old pictures and home movies, a pudgy kid making funny faces. Her struggles with her weight (and a disapproving mother who put her on diet pills at age 10) foreshadow her eventual bulimia. We also get a parade of funny moments from her television and stage career.
It’s a very agreeable assembly — only a monster wouldn’t laugh. Contemporary interviews (“SNL” producer Lorne Michaels, fellow cast members Laraine Newman and Chevy Chase, Toronto pal/ex-boyfriend Martin Short, other writers and collaborators) remind us again and again how generous of spirit Gilda was, and how much she adored performing.
The more interesting moments shed some light on the origins of some of her well-known characters. A cranky, hard-of-hearing old woman (“Emily Litella”) was based on her beloved nanny. A dorky teen (“Lisa Loopner”) was a way for she and on-and-off boyfriend Bill Murray to address their awkward relationship through comedy. Roseanne Roseannadanna was a challenge to just be as gross as possible. “Love, Gilda” is generous with greatest hits, but fails to express what her comedy’s impact had with audiences other than being, you know, funny.
After “SNL” and a one-woman show on Broadway (later filmed by Mike Nichols), she had a short marriage to musician G.E. Smith, along with many ups-and-downs with depression. Her first movie role (in the horrendous comedy “Hanky Panky”) introduced her to the great love of her life, Gene Wilder.
The footage with Wilder is charming, and their relationship is a portrait of absolute beauty. Naturally, Fate had to come in and ruin it right quick, and Radner soon fell ill with ovarian cancer. Her struggles, which she wrote about in her bestseller “It’s Always Something,” were revelatory for their time, when few discussed or especially joked about cancer.
The movie ends with not exactly a pitch for the wellness center in her name (Gilda’s Place) but a handy reminder of the good work that they do. One comes away from this film thoroughly sold that Radner was a wonderful person, and taken far too soon. If that was the main objective, I suppose the movie is something of a success. But as anything other than hagiography, it is curiously lacking.
For starters, how do you make a documentary about such a famous Jewish woman, one who regularly felt as if she didn’t fit in, and never once mention that she is Jewish? I mean, we don’t need to see bat mitzvah pictures, but at least an acknowledgement. If she and her family were 100 percent secular, that choice, for a family in the 1950s, is worth discussing. We don’t even get the famous Jewess Jeans sketch!
Bill Murray was clearly an important part of her life. He is not interviewed. “SNL” had three women in its early days: Radner, Laraine Newman and Jane Curtin. Curtin is still with us, but she is not interviewed, either. Does she have beef with Radner? If so, let’s hear it! There is also no mention of the illegal abortion Radner had when she was 19 years old. This is a particularly strange omission, as she wrote about this in her autobiography and wondered if this led to her inability to conceive a child with Gene Wilder.
Look, it’s not like I’m here rubbing my mitts together looking for some take down of Gilda Radner. I love Gilda Radner! (There’s that bit she does where she hops around the room and jumps on the bed like a little kid and it’s adorable.) It’s just that vanity documentaries are flooding our marketplace right now.
In a few years, virtually anyone who ever did anything of note in the second part of the 20th century will have a film about them ready to stream on Netflix or Amazon. (“Love, Gilda” is presented by CNN Films.) If all you have to offer is a collection of clips and some nice comments from talking heads, don’t be offended if we watch it in 10 minute increments on our phone during taxi rides.
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