Funny and Poignant ‘Love, Gilda’ Explores the Life and Trials of Late ‘SNL’ Legend

While many greats have come out of the comedy juggernaut that is “Saturday Night Live,” none have had a legacy quite like that of Gilda Radner, a member of the original cast who won over America with hilarious characters such as reporter Roseanne Roseannadanna, hearing-impaired commentator Emily Litella, and nerdy teen Lisa Loopner. Now, Radner, whose life was tragically cut short by ovarian cancer at age 42 in 1989, is having her story told in the heartbreaking, funny and inspiring documentary, “Love, Gilda.”

“Love, Gilda” is the first feature from director Lisa D’Apolito. D’Apolito recalled to Entertainment Voice how she was inspired to tell Radner’s story after volunteering to make videos for the New York City branch of Gilda’s Club, the cancer support center that was co-founded by Radner’s husband, actor Gene Wilder, following her death.

“You walk in the doors and there’s murals of Gilda all around. I would interview the members, and they would talk about Gilda. They had read her book [‘It’s Always Something’], and her presence is so strong, in Gilda’s Club, so I thought she had a really unique legacy, like a present legacy, not just somebody who was funny and famous in the past; she was really helping people [today].”

“Love, Gilda” benefits immensely from the tape recordings, journals and letters left behind by Radner, providing remarkable insight into this woman who brighten the lives of so many, yet experienced so much adversity herself. Radner dealt with body images issues throughout most of her life, and after her marriage to Wilder, infertility. L’Apolito was given access to these boxes of materials that had been in storage since Radner’s death after gaining the trust of her brother, Michael.

“I was surprised that someone who was so loved doubted herself so much,” she recounted. “How she never felt pretty, and I think she’s beautiful. People look at her and they see her big smile. I think what makes Gilda identifiable is that she’s approachable. She’s like a regular person who has regular issues.”

L’Apolito was also astounded by the comedian’s ability to stay positive when dealing with pain, something that is evident in the resulting portrait.

“Listening to her and the tapes, she’s really funny, highly intelligent, and an amazing writer, I think. Even in the darkest of times, when she was going through cancer, when she was going through her eating disorder, she was just so emotional and honest and raw, yet funny. I don’t think Gilda ever hit rock bottom. I think she was always able to balance herself off.”

The endurance of Radner’s legacy is shown in the doc through interviews with the likes of Amy Poehler, Melissa McCarthy, Maya Rudolph, Bill Hader, Cecily Strong, none of who ever had the opportunity to meet Gilda, but were nonetheless heavily influenced by her. The viewer also gets to better know her through memories of those who did know her, such as “SNL” colleagues Alan Zweibel and Laraine Newman, other lifelong friends, and even a few former boyfriends, such as Martin Short.

One of the many amusing anecdotes given about Gilda here is that she felt awkward seeing “Ghostbusters” because she had dated all the Ghostbusters at one time or another.

“Guys just loved her,” said L’Apolito. “There was something about her. Girls loved her too. Everybody just loved her.”

Radner’s greatest love of all was, of course, Wilder, and touching clips taken from their home videos show tender moments between the two. L’Apolito spoke glowingly of Wilder, whom she had the opportunity to spend the day with a year before his death from complications from Alzheimer’s disease.

“Most of the time her was totally clear. You could see why Gilda loved him. He just was so gentle and funny and handsome. He told me, he couldn’t live with her, and her couldn’t live without her, which gave me insight into who they were together. He was just lovely.”

Watching “Love, Gilda,” fans will no doubt feel fresh grief for not only the woman lost, but also for what could have been if she had recovered.

“Her friends say, when she was going through cancer, she had writing notebooks. She was planning on doing another show, a Gilda Radner sitcom,” revealed L’Apolito. “I don’t know if movies were ever her element, because she loved the live audience…. I think she would have been like an Ellen [DeGeneres], like a talk show person.”

As she was someone who thrived off of interacting with people, one cannot help but wonder if Radner would have taken advantage of social media if she were alive today.

“I think she would have been active in social media, because Gilda loved to communicate with people and she loved fans,”answered L’Apolito. “So many people have contacted me because they wrote Gilda a letter and she wrote them a letter back. She would be on social media; she would be on all night responding to everybody.”

Love, Gilda” opens Sept. 21 in select theaters.