By Chris Nashawaty
September 20, 2018 at 01:24 PM EDT
Magnolia Pictures

For the first few years, Saturday Night Live was much more of a boys’ club than it is now. With his pratfalls and prime spot in the Weekend Update chair, Chevy Chase became the break-out star of the inaugural season. When he headed west for fame and fortune in Hollywood, John Belushi all-too-eagerly elbowed his way into the brightest spotlight. And then, when he and Dan Aykroyd left to make The Blues Brothers, Bill Murray seemed to assume alpha-male status. In those early seasons, the show’s female cast members often seemed to get the leftovers – sometimes they were gourmet quality, but they still felt the bitter sting of working in the shadows. Ironically, none of those guys was the first Not Ready for Primetime Player that producer Lorne Michaels had his heart set on for his revolutionary new late-night experiment back in 1975. No, the first person he knew he had to have was Gilda Radner.

Radner is now the subject of the long-overdue documentary, Love, Gilda – a wonderfully intimate appreciation of a comic performer whose live-wire energy was so palpable she seemed to shoot off sparks whenever she bounded on stage in 30 Rock’s Studio 8-H. The first five seasons of SNL were seismic in their impact on pop culture. There had never been a show like it before – one that was directly aimed at the under-served Baby Boomer generation and reflected its sarcastic, counterculture attitudes back at them. And it’s fair to say that there had never been anyone quite like Radner doing comedy on television before. She was waifishly slight in stature, but was physically fearless, throwing herself around like a rag doll. She had a thousand-watt smile, but she could also plumb deep and vulnerable inner depths. She was part Lucille Ball goofball and part Tasmanian devil. The one thing she was consistently, though, was radiant. Watching Gilda Radner perform on those first seasons of the SNL was like seeing someone trying to physically define the word “joy”. But as Lisa D’Apolito’s new film reveals, being Gilda Radner was often not joyful at all.

Love, Gilda opens with home-movie footage of Radner as a young girl growing up in Detroit in the ‘50s. It’s hard to find a moment when she’s not mugging for the camera. Still, even at a young age, she was deeply insecure. Listening to audio of the comedienne reading her own diary entries, we learn that she was mercilessly teased at school for being overweight – something that would affect her self-image for the rest of her life, both in her battles with eating disorders and the development of her sense of humor as a defense mechanism. Her mother putting her on diet pills by age 10 didn’t help matters.

After studying theater at the University of Michigan, Radner moved to Toronto, which by the early ‘70s was quickly becoming a hothouse for a new strain of comedy. Radner joined the cast of Godspell, where she dated fellow cast member Martin Short (who, in addition to the show’s musical director, Paul Shaffer, pays a lovely tribute to Radner in the film without sugarcoating her depression and dark moods). Afterwards, she began performing at Second City alongside John Candy, Eugene Levy, and Aykroyd. Then fate tapped her on the shoulder when she was summoned to New York by Belushi to join The National Lampoon Show. The anarchically buckshot stage revue was loaded with talent (in addition to Belushi, there was Harold Ramis, Joe Flaherty, Murray and his older brother Brian Doyle-Murray), and Belushi was blunt about his reasons for recruiting her. He needed “a girl in the show”.

One of the stage show’s biggest fans was a young Canadian producer named Lorne Michaels, who turns up on camera to talk about how he immediately fell for Gilda (as so many men in her life would) and instantly knew he had to have her for Saturday Night (as it was called at first). In those initial five seasons, from 1975 until 1980, she catapulted from being an anonymous wannabe to one of the biggest stars on TV thanks to such indelible characters as the brash outer-borough honker Roseanne Roseannadanna, the nerdy, noogie-magnet Lisa Loopner, and Emily Litella – the little old lady (based on Radner’s beloved childhood nanny) with a gift for giving heated editorials based on misunderstandings and malapropisms. No matter what character she inhabited, her smile always made you smile at home. But as much of a comedy cliché as it is, Radner, even at the height of her fame, seemed to be a clown crying on the inside.

Interviews with Chevy Chase, Larraine Newman, and SNL writers Rosie Shuster, Anne Beatts, and Alan Zweibel help flesh out those heady early days, going beyond bland, boilerplate tribute into real insight – something that’s rare for bio-docs like this one. For those not old enough to have seen Radner’s trailblazing SNL work first-hand, a few more clips from the show would have gone a long way. As would some words from her former boyfriend, Murray, and a deeper dive into the show’s early institutional sexism. But the decision to have contemporary heirs like Amy Poehler, Maya Rudolph, and Melissa McCarthy talking about Radner’s influence while reading her diary entries fills in the some of the gaps beautifully.

By the time Radner’s miraculous run on SNL was winding down, she was both physically and emotionally spent. At one point she ominously writes in her diary: “I’m a rising star with heavy chains attaching me to a hard ground.” She would check into a hospital to finally tackle her eating disorders and candle-burning-at-both-ends lifestyle. At the time, she weighed just 104 pounds. Radner emerged stronger, healthier, and eager to find some stability. She found it in the actor Gene Wilder – her costar in one of her first post-SNL movie projects, 1982’s Hanky Panky. The movie, directed by Sidney Poitier, was a dud, but it was redeemed by a love affair that would last until her premature death from ovarian cancer in 1989. When she first met Wilder, she wrote, “I felt like my life went from black and white to Technicolor.”

Again, it’s here that home movies of the Radner-Wilders tell us more than simple voiceover narration ever could. Their partnership, especially during her illness, gave her peace and an inner strength that she never found in the heady days of fame. D’Apolito does a solid job of weaving together the many strands of Radner’s pinwheeling psyche. And the result is a portrait that feels rich and layered, showing us the hard-won optimism and empathy that bubbled beneath her goofball façade. Love, Gilda is penetrating, painful, and personal. It’s also bittersweet considering how it ends – how we know it must end. But for an hour and a half at least, the sorely-missed Radner feels alive again. Like she’s still with us sharing the public joy that her private self fought so hard to find. B+