‘Love, Gilda’: Film Review | Tribeca 2018

Courtesy of Tribeca Film Festival

Lisa D’Apolito’s first doc remembers the too-brief life of comedienne Gilda Radner.

A warm if not quite comprehensive-feeling biography of a performer who, even for a celebrity, elicited an unusually strong personal affection from fans, Lisa D’Apolito’s Love, Gilda tells the far too short story of Gilda Radner. Understandably weighted toward her years on Saturday Night Live, the polished debut offers a chance to both reconnect with her most famous recurring characters there and to marvel at the amount of fun she clearly had in Studio 8H. Though it’s sad to think there may be young audiences who aren’t already familiar with Radner, this will serve as a fine introduction once it hits TV — albeit one that sends viewers straight off to YouTube in search of full clips.

In a practically unprecedented move for a film fest, this opening-night offering was preceded not just by the customary, bumbling “welcome to Tribeca” preamble by founders Robert De Niro and Jane Rosenthal, and a long list of thank-yous from the director, but by a separate, heartfelt introduction by Tina Fey, who choked up twice while describing how inspiring Radner was to her own generation of SNL women.

Fey isn’t in the film, which is odd given how many of her contemporaries are. Amy Poehler, Maya Rudolph and others kick things off, reading from pages of Radner’s notebooks — which, like the audiotapes we hear, seem to have been (we’re never told) preparatory for the writing of the memoir released the year she died. (Later, Poehler will describe most of her own SNL characters as “weak, 2.0 versions” of Radner’s.)

Soon we’re transported to 1950s Detroit, watching home movies of a little girl whose spirit is immediately recognizable. Radner was a well-off kid, whose dad made money with apartment hotels and whose mom insisted on long winters in Miami. Mom also, heartbreakingly, got a doctor to put her slightly chubby daughter on diet pills at the age of ten. The film says no more about Mrs Radner’s role in the eating disorders that would plague Gilda into adulthood, but it probably doesn’t have to. It does, however, return occasionally to the hole left in Gilda’s life when her father died before she graduated high school. Radner’s own journals suggest this might explain how many short-term boyfriends she had.