Glad we had Gilda

“She would walk into the room and all the energy would go to her”

Love, Gilda: Still alive in our hearts
  • Love, Gilda: Still alive in our hearts

Where were you on the night Alan and Robin Zweibel were wed? The co-producers of the documentary Love, Gilda, opening Friday at the Ken, met while they were both working on Saturday Night Live and married in 1979. Their mutual friend Gilda Radner couldn’t make the ceremony due to a prior commitment to entertain me and two-thousand or so fellow ticket-holders at Chicago’s Arie Crown Theatre with her one-woman show, Gilda Live.

Gilda Radner was the first cast member hired by Saturday Night Live producer Lorne Michaels to star as one of his Not Ready For Prime Time Players. For the first five years of its existence, I didn’t miss an episode of the Saturday night staple, and Gilda was one of the main reasons behind the fanaticism.

Gents of a certain age will recall decorating their teenage man-caves with the notorious Farrah Fawcett swimsuit poster. The combination of teeth and pokies was the mid-’70s answer to breaking the internet. But on her best day, Farrah never made me laugh. At the time, all the guys wanted Gilda for their sweetheart, while the gals longed to be a member of her inner clique. An 8x10 of Gilda adorned the back of my bedroom door.

Born in Detroit to older parents, her father, in his 50s when Gilda was born, didn’t live to see her fifteenth birthday. In childhood, she was a voracious overeater. At the age of ten, mother Radner introduced her daughter to Dexedrine. At a very young age, Gilda learned how to ward off playground jerks looking to turn her weight into a subject of ridicule. “Comedy is hitting on the truth before the other guy thinks of it,” were words she lived by, and a reliance on self-deprecating humor became a key to her survival.

The Radner family was comfortable enough to afford a nanny, who played second-mother to Gilda. Elizabeth Gillies, whom young Gilda dubbed “Dibby,” was the basis for the her deaf and delightfully demential character Emily Litella. She became the first character on TV to utter the word, “Bitch.” The censors got such a giggle out of hearing the cuss pass from the lips of an elderly woman that they looked the other way. But the comedian also had a pronounced dark streak, as evidenced by her SNL portrayal of Christina Crawford as a fitful catatonic, or the three “Uncle Roy” skits in which she and Laraine Newman play pubescent objects of desire to their beloved babysitter played by Buck Henry. (Neither character is touched upon in the doc.)

Martin Short said of Gilda, “She would walk into the room and all the energy would go to her.” Perhaps that’s why she was never without a man by her side. According to one account, at one time or another she had flings with the just about every Ghostbuster, give or take a Rick Moranis or Ernie Hudson. (It was one of her early love interests who persuaded Gilda to drop out of college and move to Canada to be by his side.)

As musicals based on the Gospel According to St. Matthew go, Godspell was a surprisingly painless experience. Short of hiring Pier Paolo Pasolini to direct, the Toronto production lives on as the stuff legends are made of. The allegorical musical united on one stage the nascent talents of Radner, Victor Garber, Eugene Levy, Andrea Martin, Dave Thomas, and Martin Short. It also introduced Gilda to musical fledglings Paul Shaffer and Howard Shore. Before long, the New York based SNL and its far shrewder Canadian counterpart SCTV were piercing the tube with a comedy explosion the likes of which television viewers hadn’t convulsed over since Berle, Caesar, and Ball helped usher in the medium.

Soon after the opening credits — but not before the audience is given a chance to re-familiarize itself with the subject — a quartet of more contemporary SNL alumnists (Amy Poehler, Maya Rudolph, Bill Hader, and Melissa McCarthy) are called upon to to read select passages from Gilda’s diaries. Fortunately, their participation is kept to a minimum. Most celebrities don’t leave behind a stockpile of research material such as this, and director Lisa D’Apolito puts it to good use. The photographs alone would fill several storage lockers. Add to this an autobiographical audiobook narrated by the author, performance videos, and recently discovered audio tapes, and you’d swear Gilda was an active participant in the project.

“Gene took Gilda away from us,” says Paul Schaffer, with a noticeable tinge of regret still stuck in his throat. He’s referring to Gene Wilder, the actor who spent the last five years of her life loving and looking after his beloved Gilda. As Wilder’s nephew points out, “Gene wasn’t a comedian. He was an actor who appeared in a lot of funny movies.” And Gilda was a comic who didn’t want to appear as a solo personality doing standup. Gilda appeared in five features — she put off having a baby to make Haunted Honeymoon — and not one of them is worth your time.

The one thing we never learn is where the name Gilda came from. It was her birth name, but damned if I can turn up another person who shared it. America lost Gilda to ovarian cancer when the comedian was but 42-years-old. She exited swinging, doing her best to find the humor in cancer. It’s a film that begs audiences to stop and take a whiff of the proverbial roses while having a few good laughs along the way.

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Perhaps Gilda Radner‘s parents named her Gilda because just months before her birth the new movie starring redheaded bombshell Rita Hayworth “Gilda” was released on Feb 14,1946!?

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