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The recent documentary Love, Gilda (2018) has brought new light to the life of a beloved TV entertainer who died too young. Her film work is limited, mostly to a few comedy roles supporting her husband Gene Wilder. Gilda Radner's first feature film Gilda Live (1980) is a record of her mostly one-woman Broadway show directed by Mike Nichols.
The delightful Gilda Radner was the first comedian hired at the inception of the game-changing TV comedy show Saturday Night Live (1975). She was the first breakout star of the Not Ready for Prime Time Players troupe, eclipsing even John Belushi in popularity. Arguably a more natural comedian than any of her cohorts, Radner wrote much of her own material, creating a string of original, unforgettable characters spanning all ages of womanhood: the gawky kid Lisa Loopner, the crude, argumentative Roseanne Roseannadanna and the elderly fussbudget Emily Litella.
The show went on hiatus in the summer of 1979, leaving most of the original SNL players with only one more season in their contracts. Several male cast members had already moved into film work as solo performers. Belushi hit big in the comedy feature Animal House (1978) and Chevy Chase starred in Foul Play (1978). Bill Murray's first starring role came in 1979's Meatballs, while Belushi and Dan Ackroyd expanded their musical skit characters, The Blues Brothers, into a recording and concert career.
Radner decided to bust into Hollywood through a stage show. Like most of her TV cohorts, she had plenty of stage experience; her debut had been in a 1972 Toronto production of the musical Godspell, after which she joined the Toronto-based Second City troupe. She had come to SNL directly from the nationally syndicated comedy show National Lampoon Radio Hour.
Radner turned down an NBC offer for a conventional primetime TV variety show, instead choosing a one-woman music and comedy revue for Broadway as her transition vehicle. Produced by SNL's Lorne Michaels and written by the show's top writers, Gilda Radner: Live from New York simply gave the audience more of Radner's beloved skit characters. Her closest writing collaborator was Alan Zweibel, who had helped her create her Roseanne Roseannadanna character. Radner's high-energy skits alternated with musical numbers. To give time for her to rest and change costumes, SNL's Don Novello took the stage at intervals with his stand-up act as Father Guido Sarducci, which had been a hit on the TV show as well.
Radner found the transition a difficult one. With so many personalities involved, her relationships with her SNL colleagues differ according to each person. In his biography Gilda: An Intimate Portrait, David Saltman reported that Belushi was unhappy that Radner backed away from appearing with him and Aykroyd The Blues Brothers (1980). Writer Michael O'Donoghue had major disagreements with producer Michaels about the show. Even Bill Murray disparaged the show publicly, referring to Gilda as a turncoat.
Live from New York was planned to run only a few weeks during SNL's summer hiatus, at the famed Winter Garden Theater. But Radner's plan included a concert movie as well: director Mike Nichols' film crews recorded the show over several nights. The resulting concert film, Gilda Live, reproduces the theater experience before a live audience. Backing up Radner for the musical interludes are the singing group Rouge, with SNL band members led by Paul Shaffer (later famous as David Letterman's bandleader). The unchanging stage setting is the gymnasium-recreation hall of a Catholic girl's school, where Radner first remembered performing. Starting with the Michael O'Donoghue song "Let's Talk Dirty to The Animals", Radner chose material much more adult than her TV fans would remember, under the idea that the cute and adorable Radner speaking mild obscenities was funny.
Each of Radner's skits features one of her famed characters, in order from youngest to eldest. The hyperactive Judy Miller bounces around her bedroom indulging in hilarious prepubescent fantasies, transforming herself into the perfect bride and hugging and kissing her groom, a large Teddy Bear. The adolescent Lisa Loopner is overcome by emotion while singing "The Way We Were" at a grade school assembly. The near-senile Emily Litella is a disastrous substitute teacher, and her wildly popular Roseanne Roseannadanna addresses a graduating journalism class with crude memories of interviewing for a job with Walter Cronkite.
A reprise of Radner's Nadia Comaneci gymnast sketch is as cute as ever, but it adds little to what we remember from the TV show. Returning ten years after her Olympics triumphs, Radner's Comaneci gets herself into a painful splits situation. She advises us to enjoy her adorable appearance now, because in a few years she'll be fat and have a mustache (big smile). Practically the only one of Radner's original gallery of skit characters not represented in Gilda Live is her Baba Wawa, a broad lampoon of the TV journalist Barbara Walters.
A musical piece sees Radner in her guise as Candy Slice, a cocaine-addled rock singer modeled after Patti Smith. Candy's band members include future Oscar-winning composer Howard Shore and musician G.E. Smith, who would soon become Radner's first husband. After Candy collapses in a heap, the drummer (Paul Shaffer) gets her back on her feet by giving her some coke to snort. With the group Rouge, Radner becomes the Jewish-American princess Rhonda, of Rhonda Weiss and the Rhondettes. Rhonda's notion of a socially relevant song is a protest tune about the bad rap given to the sugar substitute saccharin, which she needs to stay thin.
Although Radner reportedly did not use drugs, she wrote about her personal problems with eating disorders and depression, knowledge that dampens the fun of some routines. Only five years later, she would be diagnosed with ovarian cancer, which caused her much suffering and eventually ended her life. Awareness of this nullifies one of her jokes: The self-centered Rhonda laments that "most guys prefer skinny girls with cancer over healthy girls with bulging thighs."
Director Nichols covers the show from good angles, but the stage show format gives him few opportunities to add cinematic touches of his own. He uses cutaways to the audience and follows Radner for backstage costume changes, but what we see is standard concert coverage that most any director could have obtained.
The movie Gilda Live opened early in 1980 with no fanfare and did little business. Some critics cited the adult content as a turn-off, but the most common criticism was that Radner's gallery of characters was overly familiar. With the preponderance of SNL talent writing and performing, the movie feels like an extension of the show, not a new direction for its most popular actress. The New York Times theater critic Clive Barnes called Radner "not an actress but a Schtick artist", which grossly undervalues Radner's appeal to live audiences. The best parts of Gilda Live are those that simply allow the comedian to address the audience directly. Her rapport with her adoring public is immediate and overwhelming; no other SNL personality generated as much love. At the opening of the show Radner talks about her childhood desire to be on stage, because the actors she saw just looked so happy to be there. Her exit monologue is pure emotion, with the moving final song "Honey (Touch Me with My Clothes On)" that convinces us that Radner might have done well as a dramatic actress. Even when Lisa Loopner breaks into tears over her piano, our emotional connection to Gilda is complete.
By Glenn Erickson