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Gilda Radner forever!

by Sari Staver

Gilda Radner in director Lisa D'Apolito's "Love, Gilda." Photo: Courtesy of Magnolia Pictures
Gilda Radner in director Lisa D'Apolito's "Love, Gilda." Photo: Courtesy of Magnolia Pictures  

"Love, Gilda," the new documentary about Gilda Radner that opens Fri., Sept. 21 at Landmark Theatres, is a gold mine of nuggets from the all-too-short life of the great comedian. Radner, who died of cervical cancer in 1989 at 42, became a household name after she became one of the original cast members of "Saturday Night Live." She brought her zany characters Roseanne Roseannadanna, Emily Litella and Lisa Loopner to life on the popular weekly show. She went on to meteoric fame in television, movies, and on Broadway.

The film, which opened the San Francisco Jewish Film Festival in August, offers a rare glimpse of Radner's take on her own life, thanks to recently discovered audiotapes; interviews with friends including Chevy Chase, Laraine Newman, and Martin Short; home movies; and diaries read by comedians inspired by Gilda, including Bill Hader, Amy Poehler, and Maya Rudolph. Thanks to a cooperative spirit from the Radner estate, including husband Gene Wilder and brother Michael, director Lisa D'Apolito also had access to mementos never before seen.

In an interview with D'Apolito in San Francisco, where the director appeared on a SFJFF panel discussing the film, she told the B.A.R. how she became interested in the project. Growing up in Manhattan, D'Apolito said she was "of course" aware of Radner's roles on "SNL," "although I was not a 'fan, fan'" until she began filming the story. "I was a late bloomer. Now I'm a huge fan of the show."

In the 1990s, D'Apolito worked at an advertising agency that was doing pro bono work for Gilda's Club, a community organization for people living with cancer, their families, and friends, founded by Radner's cancer psychotherapist and cofounded with Radner's widow Gene Wilder, a cancer survivor himself. As a volunteer in the program, D'Apolito learned about Radner's comic genius and thought the story of her life would make a fascinating documentary film. She began reaching out to Radner's friends and former co-workers, and "each person led to another." Eventually, Gilda's brother Michael and close friend Alan Zweibel, an "SNL" writer and producer, warmed to the idea and offered their full support and cooperation. "I was lucky to have them," she said.

D'Apolito said it took two years for the family to "really trust me," but once they did it was "unconditional support." Boxes of Gilda's belongings turned out to contain audio and videotapes nobody knew had existed. "I knew we had a goldmine" once she listened to and watched the tapes. After listening to a few, there was no going back. "I felt the project was going to succeed."

Financing the project became a major stumbling block. D'Apolito bootstrapped the film by working in advertising for several months at a time, then taking time off to work on her film. As the project developed and she met more people who knew Radner, the financing came together, and the film began its festival tour before landing national and international distribution. The movie is expected to be shown on CNN in early 2019.

Now that the film has wrapped, D'Apolito said she already misses making the film but is looking for another project with an inspiring female lead. "It's going to be hard to find someone as amazing as Gilda," she said.


John Belushi and Gilda Radner in director Lisa DApolitos Love, Gilda. Photo: Courtesy of Magnolia Pictures  

The B.A.R. also spoke with Radner's "SNL" pal Laraine Newman, who appeared with D'Apolito at the SFJFF. Newman said Radner "took me under her wing" from her first day at rehearsal. "['SNL' producer] Lorne Michaels was the only person I knew on the show. On my first day, he introduced me to Gilda," and the two became fast friends, said Newman. "Thank God for Gilda, for so many reasons," she said. "She really took me under her wing and introduced me to a lot of people."

The two "hung out" outside of work, going shopping and out to lunch on those rare occasions when they weren't rehearsing. Neither of them went to the weekly post-show afterparty, which involved a lot of drugs and alcohol. Radner was one of the few on the show who didn't partake, said Newman.

Because their time on the show was pre-internet, neither Radner nor Newman was aware of the show's cult status and popularity, said Newman. One day, walking down the street together, a group of people "shouted out our lines" from the previous week's show. "We said to each other, 'Wow, I guess this is catching on.'

"It was an exciting time," said Newman. "For the first year and a half, we were so preoccupied with the long hours that we really were not aware that anyone was watching."

All of Radner's onstage characters "had an element of herself" in them, Newman said. Judy Miller, the hyperkinetic child who loved to bounce on her bed, "had Gilda's nervous energy," and Emily Litella, the sweet older lady, resembled Radner's "cute" side, while the foul-mouthed Roseanne Roseannadanna "was the crude side of Gilda that we all loved so much."

Asked about a memory of their friendship, Newman recalled a time when the two were in New Orleans on a film shoot. They were told to wait in a small, windowless room with no phone or bathroom, where a driver would pick them up. Because of a mix-up, the driver was five hours late.

"Gilda turned the trashcan into a puppet, and we laughed our asses off" while they waited, said Newman. "She had that ability to make fun of any situation, while I'd be the one who was panicking and freaking out."

After she was diagnosed with cancer, Radner still maintained her sense of humor, said Newman. "She even made fun of cancer."

But Newman recalls one lunch the two shared where Radner shared her hurt and disappointment over an apparent rejection. Radner learned that a filmmaker who had promised her a role in an upcoming production "had changed his mind and had cast someone else. That was one of the most serious conversations we had," said Newman. "I'd never heard her express the bitterness" she felt toward the filmmaker.

Radner also had a habit of dropping out of sight "once she got a man." Nobody slighted her for it, added Newman. "We respected the fact that she wanted a relationship and a life" outside of the show.

Gilda was a "very thoughtful friend" even when the two didn't spend a lot of time together, said Newman. "I'd get an out-of-the-blue phone call," and the two would catch up as if they had seen each other the day before. "Gilda did a lot of thoughtful things," said Newman, such as always remembering birthdays. "We had a great friendship. I loved her, and have wonderful memories of our times together."


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