Using her own words, former Saturday Night Live star Gilda Radner reflects on her life and spectacular career. Weaving together recently discovered audiotapes, interviews with friends (including Martin Short, Lorne Michaels, Laraine Newman, Paul Shaffer, and Chevy Chase), rare home movies, and diary entries read by comedians who have been inspired by Gilda (Amy Poehler, Maya Rudolph, Bill Hader, and Cecily Strong), Love, Gilda provides a unique and in-depth look into the world of the beloved performer who died in 1989 at the age of 42.
As one of the original cast members on Saturday Night Live, Gilda Radner created many classic characters that are still known today such as Roseanne Roseannadanna, Emily Litella, Baba Wawa, Judy Miller, and Lisa Loopner. She quickly rose to fame in television, movies, and on Broadway, and was declared “America’s sweetheart.” Working with the Radner Estate, director Lisa D’Apolito unearthed a treasure trove of diaries and personal audio and videotapes documenting Gilda’s childhood, her comedy career, her relationships including her marriage to Gene Wilder, and ultimately, her struggle with cancer. The never-before-seen footage and journal entries form the narrative spine of the documentary, allowing Gilda to tell her own story. I sat down with Lisa D’Apolito to discuss this poignant, funny, and revealing documentary.
Danny Miller: I honestly can’t think of another performer who instantly evokes such feelings of warmth and goodwill. Is that the first thing everyone who has seen this film tells you — how much they love Gilda Radner?
Lisa D’Apolito: Pretty much! But it’s interesting — when we were at film festivals, those audiences were made up mostly of people who remember watching Gilda on television, and they all had such feelings of love for her. But now as the film gets out there, I’m starting to meet a lot of young people who were born after Gilda died, and they really admire her, too, they’re becoming big fans of her work.
When I watch Gilda Radner, I feel myself responding like she’s a sister or close friend. I know she had her problems like everyone else, but what do you think that quality is that makes people feel so loving and protective towards her?
I never met Gilda in person, but after working on this film for several years I now think of her as this magical creature because everyone I talked to who knew her loved her so much. And I mean everyone! I mean, it’s clear that Gilda loved people, she loved interacting with them, and I think that’s why she loved performing. She wasn’t doing it for herself, she was doing it for that connection with an audience.
And she was so easy to relate to.
Exactly. All of us who worked on the film, my entire production crew, we all saw a piece of ourselves in Gilda — different pieces based on who we were and the things we’ve experienced, but there was always something about her that people could identify with.
It must have been hard on her when she got so famous so fast.
It was. It’s not in the film, but one of her friends told me that they’d go out to dinner with Gilda and Gilda would go the bathroom and people would be reaching under the stall passing paper to her to get an autograph. She always seemed very approachable but that took her anonymity away which eventually took a toll on her.
I would find that terrifying. That treasure trove of material you unearthed for the film came to you after you’d been working on it for a while, right? Did that radically change what the film was going to be like?
Completely. At first I hadn’t even considered making a feature-length film. I had been doing fundraising videos for the Gilda’s Clubs, the organization that helps people with cancer and their families. I thought it would be a good idea to add something about Gilda and her legacy. I got more involved in her story and started dreaming of making a film like this but there wasn’t a lot of interest, to be honest. People kept saying, “No one knows who Gilda Radner is anymore.”
Ugh, you’re kidding, that’s insane!
I was pretty discouraged. But while all that was going on, I had been talking a lot to Gilda’s brother, Michael. He is just the most wonderful person and was very supportive of what I was trying to do. Michael had already given me a bunch of home movies from Gilda’s childhood. I knew he had a lot of other things in storage but had no idea what, and neither did he. I asked him if he could get that stuff out just to see if there was anything interesting — sSome of it was Gilda’s, some of it their mother’s. Well, I went to Detroit, and we started going through the boxes and I couldn’t believe what was there. All of these audiotapes that Gilda made when she was first talking about her life as she was writing her book, but also journals, and hundreds of VHS tapes. I knew Gilda had recorded one of her chemotherapy sessions with her husband Gene Wilder because she wrote about it in her book but no one had ever seen that. I ended up taking the tapes back with me to New York because Michael didn’t even have a VHS player and one day I was looking through them with Gilda’s best friend, Judy, and she went into a box and pulled out a tape marked “Gilda’s Ninth Chemotherapy.” I popped it in and there was Gilda in her hospital gown being funny and emotional and talking about her chemo. At that point, I thought, “Okay, this film has to happen!” and then with all that material things started to fall into place.
Hearing her talking in her own voice about her life and her problems gives us such a different perspective.
It’s true. Unfortunately, some of the audiotapes were severely damaged so we couldn’t use them, but I was able to put together a combination of parts of those along with other interviews and recordings she had done. I did one version of the film using some of the bad audio with subtitles and my filmmaker friends all say, “That’s fine, it’s Gilda telling her own story, audiences will forgive you,” but my non-filmmaker friends were like, “No, you can’t use it,” so I had to find other audio of Gilda to fill in the blanks.
Oh, darn it, I want to see the version with the bad audio! Was there anything on there that you really hated to take out of the film?
Oh, there were some wonderful stories that showed how vulnerable she was. She talked about how alone she felt at camp and how she felt like the chubby outsider. She said that the other kids treated her badly and she would cry a lot until she made a decision that she was going to be the funny one. There were a lot of stories about how she faced challenges in her life by making people laugh. There were other things, too, like her opinion on all sorts of things including the movies of the day. Such interesting stuff!
In the course of making the film, did you learn anything about her that really surprised you?
I didn’t realize the extent of her eating disorder. She wrote like two lines about that in her book and it’s public knowledge that she had an eating disorder, but only a few people in her life knew how bad it was and how much she was struggling. Many of her friends didn’t even know she was hospitalized for it.
I love the modern interviews with the comedians who were influenced by her, as well as hearing from some of her old friends. Were there any people you wanted to include in the film that you just couldn’t get?
We really wanted Bill Murray but every one of his friends that we talked to who were also friends with Gilda told us that he’d never do it. We kept trying and trying but they were right, he just couldn’t do it. Jane Curtin had also said no but said that’s because she really loved Gilda and she knew she couldn’t talk about her without getting really emotional.
Too bad, but the people that are in the film are very moving. And with the way our world is right now, watching Gilda Radner is the best medicine I can think of.