30 years ago, on May 20th, the U.S comedienne Gilda Radner passed away from ovarian cancer at the tragically early age of 42. The first performer to be selected for Lorne Michael’s NBC sketch show Saturday Night Live in 1975, Gilda proved to be the perfect foil in comedy skits alongside John Belushi, Bill Murray, Chevy Chase and Dan Aykroyd. Nicknamed ‘America’s Sweetheart’, Gilda was unafraid to play against type as the all-American ‘girl next door’, excelling in goofy and grotesque portrayals. 30 million viewers tuned into SNL every week for five years until her departure in 1980. Who could forget Gilda’s performance as the trashy ‘health’ reporter Roseanne Roseannadanna, spewing unorthodox advice when presenting the SNL ‘weekly update’? Or The Nerds, which centered around the sado-masochistic relationship between Lisa (Radner) and her dysfunctional prom date Todd, played by her real-life boyfriend Bill Murray? By 1977, Gilda had achieved superstardom, gracing the front cover of Rolling Stone, and was recognised with an Emmy award for her versatility on SNL, partying at the exclusive Studio 54, whilst fending off legions of admirers who regularly mobbed her on the streets of N.Y.C.
In 2014, film maker Lisa D’Apolito was granted exclusive access to Gilda’s private collection of diaries, which included 32 hours of audio tapes, with Gilda narrating her life and career; from her childhood in affluent Detroit, her battles with her image (and food), heady rise to stardom, and her love for husband and co-star, Gene Wilder. Here, Lisa discusses the challenges to bring Gilda’s story to the big screen.
Why did you decide to do a documentary on Gilda now?
I think Gilda has the most unique legacy. I create fundraising videos for Gilda’s Club. Gilda’s Club are cancer support centres founded by Gilda’s widower Gene Wilder after Gilda died from ovarian cancer. A couple of years ago there was talk about changing the names of the clubs as they thought people didn’t remember who Gilda was. Comedian Tina Fey was extremely emotional when she spoke about how important Gilda was in the world of comedy, comparing her to Michelle Obama when she gave a speech about Gilda for our screening on the opening night of the Tribeca Film Festival. I wanted to tell her story in her own words, and introduce Gilda to audiences all over the World who may not know who she was.
What were the challenges (and highlights) for you?
Love, Gilda started out as a labour of love. It took 4 years to produce. It was hard to get initial funding as I was told that many people do not know who Gilda was though I knew Gilda had a strong fan base. The highlight was spending this time getting to know who Gilda was though her friends including fellow SNL cast members Laraine Newman & Chevy Chase, through clips of her work between Canada, America and Europe, and through the archive collection of personal diaries kept by her brother, Michael F. Radner.
Were there any people you approached who declined to be interviewed (and why)?
It was hard to get anyone on board at the beginning. Once people in Gilda’s life started to trust my idea of her story it was easier. There were people we wanted but never heard back from them or their representatives. I also didn’t want too many interviews as I wanted Gilda to be able to tell her own story as the narrator.
The new SNL team of performers appear overwhelmed with the diary extracts. What do you think they learned from Gilda? Were there any disclosures off camera?
I was actually surprised of how deep the connection that all the later SNL performers had with Gilda – there was a tribute to Gilda with Amy Poehler’s characterisation of Roseanne Roseannadanna for the 40th anniversary of SNL. They were all too young to have seen her live on SNL but were introduced to her work by their parents who were big SNL fans. Gilda’s version of comedy is brave, vulnerable but very positive – and Gilda was good at using dark humour to joke about her cancer diagnosis on The Garry Shandling Show in 1988. I think audiences related to her. Maya Rudolph, Amy Poehler and Melissa McCarthy all saw such a positive role model and were very moved and honoured to handle her personal diaries in the documentary.
Discuss your thoughts about Gilda’s upbringing in Detroit.
Gilda was child in the 50s where there will a specific image of what girls should look like and act. The girls of her time and social economic class were expected to marry Doctors and lawyers. Gilda was unique and different and maybe she didn’t meet her mother’s expectations. Though it is isn’t depicted in the film, they were always in communication and loved each other. She was put on diet pills at the age of 10, but Gilda managed to find humour in her mother’s criticism (in their letters she says: ‘I’m skinny!’ ). Gilda did turn to her mother during her illness, and they were very close when Gilda was ill with ovarian cancer. Gilda and Gene got married in St-Tropez at the last minute so not even her closest friends were able to come. But all Gilda really wanted was to be with Gene and her dog, Sparkle.
Gilda’s beloved elder father, Herman, died when she was only 14. An incurable romantic she struggles with loneliness, searching for perfect love and dates a succession of boyfriends to match the all-consuming love to and from her father.
Gilda had said and wrote that her biggest motivation was love. She received unconditional love from her father who was also said to be a naturally funny man. She was devastated when he died from a brain tumour. Gilda had many boyfriends (including Martin Short, Bill Murray and Dan Ackroyd) – and she even has a scrapbook of images of all her lovers! But she would drop everything for men. Gilda never graduated from college because she fell in love with a Canadian sculptor, Jeffrey Rubinoff, and moved to Toronto to be a housemaker, but then she got noticed starring in The Second City Comedy Troupe and met Producer Lorne Michaels. Also, during her time at SNL, the men she met were performers too, so were coming into their own at the same time as she was.
Her family housekeeper and ‘surrogate grandmother’, Dibby, was role model for Gilda growing up, and has been credited with giving Gilda emotional support against the school bullies. Explain their unique bond over 18 years.
One of Gilda’s journals has 20 pages on one-liners written about Dibby. They had a real kinship. Gilda said Dibby was her best friend and much more than a nanny or housekeeper – she stayed at the Radner house for 18 years. Dibby taught her to use humour as a weapon to use against bullies who ridiculed her weight problem. She was also supposed be funny herself. She loved Gilda’ s character Emily Litella (which was based on her) who is always getting things wrong much to the bemusement of the SNL ‘news anchorman’ (Chevy Chase). There’s also an occasion when Gilda is on the David Letterman show and she calls Dibby. It’s pretty surreal.
Gilda shows a talent for mimicry, improvisation, physical comedy and method acting developed as a child, which takes her to Toronto and NYC in the early seventies – but with Martin Short’s withering assessment of her audition at The Toronto Stage Company – after she sings Dippidy doo dah, how do you think she managed to win over the theatre company?
I think Gilda was able to win over anyone with her enthusiasm and uniqueness. She was a natural performer and loved being on stage with others, basking in the glow of the audiences and their suggestions. When I asked her friends who knew her how they would describe Gilda, they always said “funny” first. As she was naturally funny. She also always put herself out there to get a laugh.
What do you think made her stand out from all the rest as the first person to be cast for SNL?
She had known SNL producer Lorne Michaels from her days in Toronto so he was well aware of her work in God spell, Second City and National Lampoon – Gilda was the only female member cast in Lampoon. Gilda was young, smart, sassy and vivacious and did excellent impersonations of rock chick Patti Smith and talk show host Barbara Walters. She was actually asked to do a Canadian TV show at the same time but choose to work on Saturday Night because of her close friendship with Lorne, and championed Bill Murray when Chevy Chase left SNL.
With an imbalance of female and male performers, how do you think Gilda managed to rise above a lot of alpha-males like Belushi – who was known to decline writing by women?
Gilda was really loved by all and could hold her own with these guys on Second City and being the only female performer on National Lampoon. I think it was because she was so funny, a brave performer and loved being part of a team. She thought highly of Belushi and considered him a mentor and protector. Gilda learned from him, marveling at how he used his physicality. She was very close to him and his wife Judy.
In terms of Bill Murray they seemed to have an ‘on and off’ relationship over a period of time. If you look at the Lisa and Todd characters on SNL you can see how their offbeat relationship plays out in front of the camera.
The male and female writers on SNL loved to write for her as they knew they could always rely on her to make any sketch work to her advantage. I give a lot of credit to the talented females writers on SNL including Anne Beats, Suzanne Miller and Rosie Shuster as they had to fight to get their sketches shown on air.
Gilda teamed up Lorne in 1979 to produce her one woman show in New York, achieving success on Broadway – and it showcased her versatility as performer. Why do you think Gilda moved over to movies and didn’t develop more stage shows?
Gilda Live was a wonderful but lonely experience for Gilda. There was a lot of pressure doing a one-woman show. Though there were SNL characters in the show, including Emily Litella, but she was the star alone on the stage who carried the production. Gilda thrived on being part of an ensemble. After SNL she went on to do the play Picnic on Broadway. Sidney Poitier saw her and thought she would be a good for his film Hanky Panky. Gilda had a lot of offers by this time, so I think the transition to movies was inevitable.
What is your take on Gilda’s marriage and film partnership with Gene Wilder?
Gilda adored Gene. He was everything she ever wanted. He was also older, twice divorced and very comfortable with his fame after a string of box office hits including The Producers and Young Frankenstein. He wasn’t out at nightclubs and parties like the SNL crowd. Gene introduced her to a simpler life and they lived in Connecticut. Love, Gilda is told though Gilda’ s voice so I focused on her view of Gene. She was intent on marrying him (they dated for 2 years) and she virtually gave up her career to support him in films including Haunted Honeymoon and The Woman In Red. Gilda also learned French and tennis – the very things Gene loved. Gilda really wanted a child badly but unfortunately it wasn’t to be, and after she was operated on for ovarian cancer she lost the chance. If she had lived I think they would have adopted. But would they be together now? I don’t know. Relationships are complicated.
Gilda’s relationship with comfort food, and struggles with bulimia and anorexia (since the age of 9) took their toll on her body, driven by a quest for perfection and the misguided belief she is fat – not helped by the harsh scrutiny of the media and the end of SNL. Do you think that was an emotional crutch?
I don’t think people knew much about eating disorders at the time. Gilda always made a joke about gorging on food and throwing up so people around her did not realise the emotional impact on her. It was really only captured in her diary where I learned about the level of stress Gilda was under, her mixed emotions about fame and her underlying loneliness. There was a lot of pressure to be thin on television. The SNL after show parties were also filled with beautiful tall thin models which added to Gilda’s insecurity. I think she always saw herself as a fat girl and all this pressure and need to control the situation came out through her eating disorders.
What were your thoughts on seeing her chilling premonition ‘I know I won’t be able to hold on forever’ in her diaries? Was there anything you wanted to censor or edit out?
“I know I won’t be able to hold on forever’ was in association with her struggles not to gorge on food and throw up. She had checked herself into a hospital for her eating disorder and was concerned with would happen when she went back to SNL.
There was so much wonderful content from Gilda’ s handwritten letters and postcards. I wish I could had included more. From what I discovered Gilda didn’t really have any secrets, she was honest about who she was and what she did. She had a great outlook on life. Even in her deepest journals entries she came out of a journal entry with hope and humour.
Gilda was unafraid to use her cancer as dark humour – and was the first to tackle it publicly through comedy (in the Garry Shandling show) She openly talks about her insecurity before her appearance. Why did she push herself to do it?
When Gilda was first hospitalised for cancer someone informed The National Enquirer. It ran with the salacious title “Gilda Radner in life/death struggle”. At first she hid from the public but the world was her playground and she loved to be with people. I think humour was her weapon in life and cancer put her on a mission. She really wanted people not to be afraid to get diagnosed or to say the word ‘cancer’.
When looking at the use of diaries as a medium – did anyone feel voyeuristic in reading her innermost thoughts? Why did the family keep the diaries when they chart her pain and insecurity?
Gilda’s personal boxes had been packed away since her death in 1989 so no one had the chance to read her journals. When her brother Michael Radner gave me access to the boxes at first he was hesitant about the journal. But he trusted me, and knew that I would use them with respect. I don’t think I felt voyeuristic but I did feel extremely sad at some of the pain she went through but I was also inspired by her hope. I felt it was an honour and the most amazing discovery to hear Gilda’s voice through her writing – and 32 hours of audio recordings. She also left behind several pieces of creative writing, including short stories and a screenplay .
Despite her fame and audiences of SNL reaching SNL, Gilda did not appear to feel sexy or confident in her own skin. Why do you think she had such crippling insecurity despite her fame, wealth, large circle of friends, family and body of work? Do you think it was because she didn’t know who was attracted to her as a famous woman or the real Gilda?
I think being famous doesn’t make your inner problems go away they probably make your insecurities come out more. 1975-80 the cast of SNL became famous. Gilda couldn’t go out without people recognising her. Fame must make you wonder if people like you for who you truly are, or the celebrity you have become. I think what Gilda had going for her is that she had really good friends from her childhood days including her mates Pam and Judy who grounded her. But she never felt pretty which I can’t really understand because if you look at photos of her she had most beautiful infectious smile.
What has been the most moving thing in your research? What had been the response at Tribeca, through those who contributed to the documentary upon its release?
For me the best thing was discovering such an honest loving person. Gilda loved life and she loved people. There wasn’t a mean bone in her body. She also found humour in the darkest of times, which is not really easy to do. But it is also sad as she died in 1989 at 42 years old. Imagine what she would have created now or who she would have collaborated with.
Many of Gilda’s friends, and cast members of SNL were out in attendance at Tribeca, including Lorne Michaels. Gilda’s friends felt that I brought her back to life and they learned things about her they didn’t know before. Her brother Michael Radner and the family are very happy with the film. To me the most satisfying is when people who have never heard of Gilda Radner before, see the film and fall in love with her.
How should Gilda be remembered in the 30th year of her passing?
Gilda is probably one of the best physical comedians of all time. Her physical comedy is universal and stands the test of time. Her place among female American comedians is solid. She was inspired by the slapstick of Lucille Ball and Charlie Chaplin as a child and she herself continues to inspire comedians like Tina Fey, Amy Poehler and Melissa McCarthy. Her memoirs, “It’s Always Something” won a posthumous Grammy for Best Spoken Album (and Gilda also won a coveted star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame in 2003). Today, Gilda’s Club now has 17 branches across America and Canada. She continues to inspire people affected by cancer with her no-nonsense approach. There is nothing polarising about Gilda – she was truly loved by all who knew her.