If you ask Saturday Night Live fans who some of their favorite cast members throughout the show’s history were, chances are high that Gilda Radner — and her many famous characters from Roseanne Roseannadanna to Emily Litella to Baba Wawa — would be one of them.
A new documentary opening Sept. 21 at the Ritz at the Bourse sheds light on Radner’s childhood and the influences in her life that led her to comedy and the Saturday Night Live set.
Love, Gilda mixes archival footage from SNL and talk show appearances, still images and home videos of a little Gilda growing up in a Jewish family in Detroit via talking head interviews with some famous faces Radner most influenced.
Amy Poehler, Maya Rudolph, Melissa McCarthy, Bill Hader, Martin Short, Cecily Strong, Chevy Chase and many others, in addition to some of Radner’s family like her brother, Michael, read pages from Radner’s own diaries and journals.
“This is a real honor,” Hader said, as he read some of Radner’s words.
A key piece of the film, too, aside from Radner’s comedic legacy, is a deeper exploration into her life’s darker sides. She overcame an eating disorder for which she was hospitalized and later battled — and lost to — ovarian cancer.
But in true Radner fashion, she took her diagnosis in stride and made jokes about it during talk show appearances.
It was this nature that inspired director Lisa D’Apolito to make the film.
“Gilda has such an amazingly unique legacy,” she said in a phone interview, “because she was one of the first people to really talk about cancer in the late 1980s before anybody else did, so besides her being the most fantastic, iconic female comedian, she has a really amazing legacy.”
After Radner died, her husband, the late Gene Wilder, and friends opened Gilda’s Club, a cancer support organization in New York City with chapters throughout the country.
D’Apolito works on volunteer films there, which was what provided the impetus to make Love, Gilda.
And Radner’s legacy has certainly endured.
“She really has inspired so many comedians, especially female comedians,” D’Apolito said, “because they looked to her. They watched her as a child, and now there’s other people watching them. So she has a unique place in the history of comedy.”
It’s well known that Radner was funny, but the film takes a deep dive into why Radner turned to comedy in the first place.
“Her entertaining, her love of comedy and entertaining started when she was young for both good and bad reasons,” D’Apolito said.
Close relationships with her father and her nanny “Dibby” (who inspired the Emily Litella character), the awkward years of adolescence that lead to feeling out of place in your own body and consistent weight struggles were contributing factors to why Radner turned to comedy.
When Radner was teased by classmates for being overweight, Dibby told her, “if they call you fat, just make a joke about it and laugh.”
“When I look back on my own life,” Radner had said, “I always felt that my comedy was just to make things be all right. … I could be people that I really wasn’t.”
While there was plenty of footage featured, there was still more D’Apolito knows she would’ve wanted. Footage from birthday parties, from her one-woman show on Broadway, from her life with Wilder — all created a portrait of the comedian we know and her life.
“You never have as much as you really want,” she said. “The main things I wanted to get into her story was her relationship with her dad, her relationship with her nanny, her relationship with her mother — I was really concentrating on the relationships because I really felt the key to Gilda’s life, all the answers, were things that started in her childhood.”
For D’Apolito, learning about Radner’s eating disorder and depression, which manifested in bouts of bulimia during her time on SNL, was surprising, as was her writing ability.
“She was an amazing writer, really amazing writer, because she could be so serious and emotional and so deep yet still be funny,” she said.
Her eating disorder in particular was surprising because D’Apolito didn’t realize the extent of it until she read a journal Radner kept in 1978 when she checked herself into the hospital.
“You think of somebody who’s at the height of their fame being happy,” D’Apolito said, “and she was struggling with so much.”
But amid her struggles, Radner always sought to shine a light.
“That’s what’s so inspiring about Gilda, is she could always find something in [humor] to distract her or feel positive about,” she said. “She was a really positive person.”
For female comedians today, Radner and her spirit and energy continues to be a guiding inspiration. She made a name for herself amid the largely — but not totally — male original SNL cast. In fact, she was the first one Lorne Michaels cast.
If Radner were still alive, D’Apolito guessed she would be a guest host on SNL and cheer on the cast each week.
“Gilda was such a good person. Out of all the 70 or 80 people I’ve talked to, everyone said she was a wonderful person, a wonderful friend, she never forgot birthdays, she was just a good person,” D’Apolito said.
“I guess I wish I could be like her — I wish I could remember people’s birthdays and be positive like her,” she added with a laugh. “She never let anything stop her. As a female in comedy, she never felt any different from the men she was working with. She just went for it. And professionally — though she may have doubted herself personally — she never doubted herself. That’s pretty inspiring.”