In 1975, a petite Jewish comedian from suburban Detroit named Gilda Radner became famous overnight with the debut of “Saturday Night Live.” As one of the original “Not Ready for Prime Time Players,” on “SNL,” Radner created iconic characters like Emily Litella, Roseanne Roseannadanna, and Baba Wawa, and won an Emmy during her five-year run on the show. But hidden behind the laughter was the Gilda the public never knew: a woman who struggled with the pressures of fame, an eating disorder, and later, ovarian cancer, which ultimately claimed her life in 1989 when she was 42.
The documentary “Love, Gilda” explores both the public persona and the personal side of the beloved performer, telling her story through video clips, audio recordings, home movies, interviews with friends and colleagues, and writings from her journals, read by more recent “SNL” cast members including Maya Rudolph, Amy Poehler and Bill Hader.
First-time feature director Lisa D’Apolito, who spent 4 1/2 years making the film, told the Journal, “It was a passion project.” She wasn’t a big Radner fan while growing up, “but I am now,” D’Apolito said. “Her legacy was so unique and important.”
While D’Apolito was working in production at an advertising agency about eight years ago, a request came in to make some videos for Gilda’s Club, the cancer support organization that Radner’s widower, Gene Wilder, founded in 1995. “But about halfway through the process, Gilda’s brother gave me access to her personal materials that had been in storage since she passed away, including audiotapes that she recorded for her book, ‘It’s Always Something.’ Once I heard them, I wanted to incorporate as much as I could, and tell the story from her point of view,” she said.
Unfortunately, some of the audiotapes were damaged, so D’Apolito had others rerecord Radner’s words. She had about a dozen journals and other writings to work with, and excerpts appear on screen in Radner’s handwriting. “It was important to me to use the journals exactly how they were written,” she said. “But we had to retouch and clean up a lot of them.”
One journal, from the summer of 1978, was particularly revelatory. “Gilda had checked herself into a hospital for an eating disorder,” D’Apolito said. “Only two friends knew. It was surprising to me that at the height of her fame, she was going through so much. She was struggling inside and not telling anybody what was going on.”
As noted in the film, Radner’s issues with food go back to her childhood, when she was given diet pills as an overweight 10-year-old. She grew up in an affluent Jewish community, attending a private school and spending winters in Miami Beach with her family, which was her first comedic inspiration.
“Her father, brother and cousins were funny. There’s a real respect for humor in the way she grew up,” D’Apolitio said. “She wasn’t raised religious in any way, but she called herself a Jew from Detroit. She was very proud of her background.”
It was important to D’Apolito to convey what it was like for a woman in comedy in the 1970s and specifically on “SNL,” where there were no female writers at the time. “But Gilda never felt suppressed, and she never doubted herself as a performer,” she said. “She felt equal to [the men].”
Although Radner had tragedy in her life, including her father’s death from a brain tumor when she was 14, plus a miscarriage and her battle with ovarian cancer, “she could always find the humor,” D’Apolito said. “No matter what was going on, she never hit rock bottom, never let anything get her down.”
D’Apolito believes it was Radner’s perky personality that endeared the performer to the public. “She loved an audience. She loved people. She was very accessible and approachable. She exuded some sort of joy, something that made you connect to her.”
In April, comedian Tina Fey introduced the film at its premiere on opening night of the Tribeca Film Festival, with many other “SNL” alumni and comic luminaries in attendance. “Audiences are happy to have Gilda back,” D’Apolito said, based on her observations at Tribeca and other screenings. “They’re remembering her and how much they loved her.”
D’APolito added, “I’m hoping that a younger generation can discover Gilda. She had a really important role in comedy, and I hope the film brings that to light for people who didn’t know her and her work.”
Asked how Radner might react to the film, D’Apolito wasn’t sure. “But her friends and family love it,” she said. “I hear Gilda’s voice in my head [saying], ‘Why did you use that bad picture of me?’ But I think [the film] has a good balance. I think she’d want an open, honest picture of her life and I think that’s what I have. I hope that she would like it.”
New York-based D’Apolito, who was an actress before she got into production and directing commercials and short films, may not be finished with Radner just yet. “Gilda left behind a lot of material, some short stories and a really good screenplay — a comedy about a woman looking for love who’s torn between two men,” she said. “I don’t want her stuff to go back into storage. I’m talking to people to figure out what we can possibly do.”
“Love, Gilda” opens in theaters on Sept. 21.