Film Reviews

Review: ‘Love, Gilda’

Hot Docs 2018

Gilda Radner and husband Gene Wilder, as seen in the documentary Love, Gilda
Courtesy of the Estate of Gilda Radner


Love, Gilda
(USA, 84 min.)
Dir. Lisa D’Apolito
Programme: Special Presentations (International Premiere)

The dead celebrity cinematic universe gets a new hero in Love, Gilda. Like the adventures of Iron Man, Captain America, Wonder Woman, and the Hulk, this enjoyable doc is one we’ve seen before. In fact, audiences saw it five years again when it was called Love, Marilyn. The difference is simply the personality that graces the screen.

Director Lisa D’Apolito performs a respectable rinse and repeat job with Liz Garbus’s poetic approach to Marilyn Monroe. Love, Gilda/Marilyn produces a multifaceted portrait(s) of the tragic icon by inviting actresses to read entries from the diaries of the stars. D’Apolito assembles a handful of (mostly female) Saturday Night Live alums to read the scribblings of Gilda Radner and pay tribute to the glass ceiling she helped break for women in comedy. Stars like Amy Poehler, Maya Rudolph, Melissa McCarthy, Cecily Strong, and Bill Hader dive into Radner’s persona while adding personal accounts about their experiences in show business. However, Love, Gilda all but abandons the conceit and morphs into a conventional talking heads piece mixed with ample archival material. The stars marvel at her letters, read a line or two, and don’t speak of them again.

The doc compensates for its erratic style by using the archival material to convey how Radner was a force of laughter and joy. Unlike Monroe, her image hasn’t been recycled, regurgitated, and deified by generations of adoring fans. The material feels fresh even when the approach does not. Laugh a little and cry a little with Love, Gilda.

D’Apolito and the talking heads give Radner a cradle to grave history as they mine her diaries, family photos, yearbooks, and home movies. The doc tells a story of Radner feeling uncomfortable in her body and using humor to beat the awkwardness of adolescence to the punch. As Love, Gilda charts her move to Toronto and early days performing in the legendary production of Godspell that launched the careers of several Second City players and Canuck comics, it credits her as a trailblazer in a field dominated by men. Footage shows her scoring laughs alongside Martin Short and Eugene Levy—the former, Radner’s ex- boyfriend, makes an appearance as a talking head but the latter does not—and being at the forefront of a new generation of comedy. Often playing “the girl” in the testosterone heavy troupe of John Belushi, Bill Murray, Chevy Chase and company at National Lampoon, Radner was inspired to overhaul the roles for women in comedy. The female voices included in the first half(ish) of the film credit Radner for opening many doors.

Radner’s success during the formative years of Saturday Night Live offers some of the better insights caught on film about the long-running show. Archival footage highlights the adolescent camaraderie of the comics as they ascended to fame for inspiring audiences to laugh week by week, while ample clips show Radner in action creating her many memorable kooky characters.

The final act of the film offers the strongest and most intimate glimpse into Radner’s mind as it chronicles her relationship with Gene Wilder and her battle with ovarian cancer. Comedy offers hope in the face of death and the film illustrates how Radner ended her tragically short career just as she began it: by beating adversity to the punchline. This affectionate portrait of the comedienne is a fine celebration of life, love, and, above all, laughter.

Love, Gilda screens:
-Sat, Apr. 28 at 9:30 PM at Hot Docs Ted Rogers Cinema
-Sun, Apr. 29 at 1:15 PM at TIFF Lightbox
-Thurs, May 3 at 4:15 PM at Hot Docs Ted Rogers Cinema
-Sat, May 5 at 9:00 PM at Isabel Bader

Hot Docs runs April 26 to May 6. Please visit hotdocs.ca for more info.

Visit the POV Hot Docs Hub for more coverage from this year’s festival!

Pat Mullen is POV’s Associate Online Editor, etc. He covers film at Cinemablographer.com, and has contributed to The Canadian Encyclopedia, Paste, BeatRoute, Modern Times Review, and Documentary magazine and is a member of the Toronto Film Critics Association and the Online Film Critics Society. You can reach him at @cinemablogrpher

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