The enduring legacy of Gilda Radner

With Love, Gilda, the late comedian and first breakout star of SNL finally gets the documentary she deserves.


Rebecca Nicole Williams

People would sometimes me ask at parties, ‘If you had a DeLorean, which moment in history would you travel back in time for?’ As I sit in the reflected light of a Sunset Boulevard billboard across the road from the Chateau Marmont, where John Belushi passed away in 1982, a whisper tells me that my moment would be the 35th birthday party of Laraine Newman, one of the three original female stars on NBC’s hit show Saturday Night Live.

This party was in 1987, and Belushi was already gone, but otherwise it was the last time the original Not Ready for Prime-Time Players would be together. For the most part, anyway. Chevy Chase had figuratively “died right after his first movie with Goldie Hawn,” as Belushi put it, musing over the graves of his co-stars in Tom Schiller’s ironic short film Don’t Look Back in Anger. Chase’s replacement from midway through season two, Bill Murray, was the one to carry the tired, terminally ill Gilda Radner, the first true breakout superstar of the group, round and round the house, prolonging her departure from the party with everyone saying goodbye a hundred times, not knowing it would be their last. Or so the story goes.

In Lisa D’Apolito’s new documentary Love, Gilda, Radner’s story is told in her own words. Current SNL superstars sit with dropped jaws as they realise they are reading from her handwritten notebooks. Amy Poehler considers all her characters “Gilda 2.0”. Born in Detroit in 1946 to Jewish immigrant parents, Radner quickly began using her comic talents to counter schoolroom bullying over her weight. For many years she struggled with eating disorders and diet pills her mother had put her on as a child.

After finding a niche as a children’s entertainer, Radner went on to perform alongside on-off boyfriend Martin Short in the original production of Godspell. After SNL landed in 1975, guest appearances in The Rutles’ All You Need is Cash and SNL offshoot Mr Mike’s Mondo Video supported the vein of sketch comedy as the ’80s approached. A gifted voice actor, Radner provided all the female characters opposite Billy Crystal and Harry Shearer in Animalympics, the feature debut of Tron director Steve Lisberger. Witches Night Out remains a staple of the American Halloween.

Saturday Night Live was not shown in the UK until 1992, when the BBC ran some late-night cut-downs from that year’s season featuring Sandler, Schneider and Walken as the Trivial Psychic. Fans who traced the roots of the original 1975-77 cast from hit films like Ghostbusters, National Lampoon’s Vacation and It Came from Hollywood had no real access to the canon of Garrett Morris, Jane Curtin, Laraine Newman and Gilda Radner. ‘Best of’ VHS compilations were hunted and clips used in documentaries such as Rex Bloomstein’s 1990 BBC Arena entry Next Time, Dear God, Please Choose Someone Else. Today SNL’s YouTube channel has thousands of sketches including all the early work that earned Radner her position as natural successor to Lucille Ball, the iconic comedian who pioneered the Hollywood creche which remains open on the Paramount backlot to this day.

In 1989, when Gilda died a preventable death from ovarian cancer a month before her 43rd birthday, she was best known in the UK as wife and co-star of Gene Wilder, the subject of many tributes himself since passing in 2016. Radner’s film with Bob Newhart, First Family, had made little impression, and Charles Grodin’s Movers & Shakers also failed to secure an international release. Even Mike Nichols’ Gilda Live, a permanent record of Radner’s sold out Broadway show, is only now receiving a theatrical screening in London.

Wilder reunited with his Stir Crazy director Sidney Poitier for the 1982 Hitchcock spoof Hanky Panky, where he and Radner met on set. You can see them fall in love on camera. Two years later Wilder wrote a part for Radner in The Woman in Red, an otherwise unaltered remake of 1976’s Pardon Mon Affaire, showcasing her comic genius as the woman scorned in a case of mistaken identity. Their next joint venture, Haunted Honeymoon, was a notorious flop but remains a favourite among fans of both stars and comedies in that tradition.

Filmed in London while Radner was becoming sick and receiving experimental treatments that ultimately failed, Haunted Honeymoon glows with the sense of romance with which the couple surrounded themselves and marks her final film appearance. A year after her groundbreaking 1988 appearance on the show of friend Garry Shandling, Radner lost her battle. Her beloved Wilder went on to create Gilda’s Club, a cancer support and awareness network with bases across North America, in her honour.

At Love, Gilda’s Los Angeles premiere, the room is emotionally charged as the post-credit stinger rolled – the feeling one of deep connection, even among strangers. My guests, veteran comic Marc “Skippy” Price and his partner, the actor Angela Jones, step outside for air. Behind me, Golden Globe nominee Diane Venora is in floods of tears. She is a survivor and overwhelmed by the blessing of this moment. Legendary comedian’s comedian Richard Lewis looks stunned, stirred and elated all at once. I turn into a pratfall in a party dress, knocking things over, dropping drinks, bumping into stuff and standing in the wrong place with AMPAS security picking up after me, smiling, reassuring me, ‘We’ve got your back, kid’. I hide in the toilet of the Linwood Dunn Theatre until I receive messages asking where I am. There are people who want to meet me.

Meryl Goldsmith, an executive producer on the film, comes from a family who know the Radners well, although was too young to remember her own meetings with Gilda. As with all precious things, the Radner estate is well protected. Pitching in to Lisa D’Apolito’s Indiegogo campaign began an association that thrives on mutual respect and earned trust. Plus, of course, a genuine love. As the first true superstar of Saturday Night Live and a household name across the US by the end of its first season, it is important that Radner’s story is told by the right people. It is long overdue.

Rebecca Nicole Williams has curated the ‘We Love Gilda!’ celebration at the Phoenix Cinema in East Finchley, starting with the European premiere of Love, Gilda on 9 December. The retrospective also features 35mm screenings of Hanky Panky, The Woman in Red and Haunted Honeymoon.

Published 2 Oct 2018

Tags: Amy Poehler Bill Murray Gene Wilder Gilda Radner John Belushi Lisa D’Apolito SNL

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