Director of commercials Lisa D’Apolito never intended to make a documentary about Gilda Radner, the winsome standout female star of the original ensemble cast of TV’s Saturday Night Live.
She never met Radner, who died in 1989 from ovarian cancer, and barely knew of the comedian’s most enduring characters – Roseanne Roseannadanna, Emily Litella and Lisa Loopner – when she began a series of pro bono fundraising videos for Gilda’s Clubs, a national network of social services programs for youngsters with cancer and their families.
Recalling her first encounter with a Gilda’s Club, D’Apolito says, “I walked through the red door of a townhouse in New York City and was greeted by a beautiful mural of smiling Gilda Radner. And you just feel a sense of peace come over you.” Like the rest of the nation already had, D’Apolito began to fall in love with the performer-writer.
The result is Love, Gilda, a documentary that follows Radner from her beginnings in Detroit, to her show business roots in the Second City improv troupe in Toronto and then to her rise to major celebrity on Saturday Night Live. She later took her characters to Broadway in a one-woman show, made several comedies for the big screen with her second husband, Gene Wilder, and wrote a touching memoir, It’s Always Something. But as the film which opens on Friday reminds us, Radner ultimately lost her battle with cancer and died at the age of 42.
D’Apolito began interviewing Gilda’s Club members and “they would talk about Gilda as if she were their friend. Like someone who really helped them through this really hard time,” she says by phone from Los Angeles where the film had its commercial premiere last week. Eventually, when Gilda’s brother Michael entrusted D’Apolito with the boxes of home movies and audiotapes made by Gilda, the film took shape.
“Michael, Gilda’s brother, is like one of my best friends now,” says D’Apolito. “But it did take a couple of months to convince him to even be interviewed. The Radner family and friends have been very supportive financially with the film also, and with anything they could do to help the film. But it really took some time for Michael to give me access to the things in storage.
“What I learned subsequently is nobody likes to go into their storage unit and go through boxes.” And in this case, “No one really knew what was in storage, Michael didn’t even know what he had.”
In addition to the amateur movies that Gilda and her family took, Gilda recorded her thoughts for what became her autobiography. For the film, D’Apolito painstakingly matched up the two, creating a narrative flow that simulates Radner showing and telling moviegoers about her life.
The film includes many of Radner’s early SNL colleagues – Chevy Chase, Lorne Michaels, Laraine Newman, Paul Shaffer and Martin Short – reminiscing about the show’s beginnings and about the bundle of energy that was Radner. More recent stars of the show – Bill Hader, Amy Poehler, Maya Rudolph and Cecily Strong – are shown reading passages from Radner’s diaries. But D’Apolito knew that she needed to include Wilder, who proved elusive for the longest time.
“Of course Gene would be the most important person to talk to in the film,” she says. “Gilda’s good friends and her cancer therapist and Michael were all trying to get Gene to talk to me. But they didn’t hear from him for a couple of years. Then, about a year before he died (in 2016), I got a call kind of out of the blue from Karen, his wife, and she said, ‘Gene wants to see you,’ and I was able to spend the day with him.
“He had Alzheimer’s, but he was lucid at times. He was able to tell me a lot of good stories about Gilda and he just had a beautiful spirit. I could definitely see why Gilda loved him. He told me he couldn’t live with her and he couldn’t live without her. It really kind of summed up a lot of things. He was lovely.”
Asked about the key challenges the film presented to her, D’Apolito answers without hesitation, “Two things. One was raising the money. But that’s probably the answer that any filmmaker would give you.
“The other challenge was the quality of the audiotapes. We had 30 hours of audiotapes of Gilda that she recorded for her book, and they were just sitting in a regular storage unit, so they all had different degrees of damage. But once I heard the tapes, I wanted the film to be from Gilda’s point of view. It took about a year going through them, getting them fixed and subsequently finding other interviews and other audio of Gilda to supplement them. That was a real struggle.”
Love, Gilda was selected for the opening night of the Tribeca Film Festival this spring, a night D’Apolito vividly recalls. “It was really exciting. We sold out – 2,800 seats. Tina Fey introduced the film and she got really emotional. I think you can find it on YouTube. She said she loved the film so much. She said she watched it in 10-minute parcels so she could savor it. That was just really wonderful,” she says. “There was a big, significant SNL crowd.”
To see Love, Gilda is to appreciate – probably again – what a skilled comic Radner was. “On the technical side, she was a brilliant physical comedian,” says D’Apolito. “If you watch her sketches, they really hold up over a period of time. But I also think what made her so lovable to an audience is that she loved being there. She loved performing, she loved audiences, she loved performing with other people. You can just see the joy that she had and I think it was infectious.”
The unanswerable question, of course, is what Gilda would have thought of this documentary about her. “People keep asking me that,” responds D’Apolito, “so I asked Gene Wilder’s nephew and his answer is the best answer, I think. He was like, ‘I love the film, but I hated the ending.’ Gilda would have said something funny like that.”