The only advice I have to offer for getting through this life is this: When it all’s gone sour, go to YouTube and type “Gilda Radner talk dirty to the animals.” Up comes a number from the star’s ‘79 Broadway show, two and a half ebullient minutes of young Radner, all crackpot smile and frizzed-out hair and hippy-dippy coveralls, jauntily suggesting we speak cruel filth to bunnies and hippos. It’s not just funny — it’s heartening, a synthesis of childish glee, libertine whimsy and showtune professionalism so pure and daft that it can turn a whole day around. Watch her sashay stage left and right on the chorus, her arms swaying to accent the beat. What’s hilarious is her commitment to selling the song right, as if this doggerel ditty is a legitimate showstopper.
“Let’s Talk Dirty to the Animals” passes by in a flash, but it’s still more of a sustained Radner performance than you’ll see in most of Lisa D'Apolito’s Love, Gilda, the documentary appreciation of the Saturday Night Live dynamo. Like lots of docs about media personalities, Love, Gilda is often rushed and scattered, only rarely letting one of its vintage clips play out, always cutting away to something else. As a career overview, it’s less satisfying than just spending an hour online, pulling up highlights yourself.
But there’s more to stars than their clip reels. Crucially, D'Apolito has managed to make Radner’s own voice the voice of the film. Radner narrates, in a way, through her own audio diaries, plus some snippets of interviews and judicious excerpts from the audiobook of her perfectly titled — and just-barely posthumous — memoir, It’s Always Something. (Radner recorded the book a month before her death from cancer in 1989.) The voiceover is sometimes awkwardly spliced, but D'Apolito combines it with glimpses of Radner’s private home movies, personal photographs and samples of the performer’s thoughts from her handwritten journals, including witty poems. This shifts the film’s perspective someplace fresh: Rather than surveying Radner from afar, primarily through her work or the memories of the people she loved, we’re steeped in her mind and heart.
The portrait that emerges is reductive but moving. Radner herself suspects that the death of her father, when she was a girl, left her hungry as an adult for the love of men who weren’t available truly to give it. That includes several of her National Lampoon and Saturday Night Live colleagues, a collection of self-involved exes that — as one observer notes in the film — made it hard for Radner, years later, to watch Ghostbusters. Meanwhile, as the men of the Not Ready for Primetime Players found success in movies, Radner found herself increasingly called upon to shoulder Saturday Night Live, while finding little support for her lifelong struggles with her body image. Radner’s relationship with food is a heartbreaking through line, from home-movie clips of Gilda as a kid to the postcard we glimpse that she has sent home at the height of her fame, assuring her mother that she’s keeping thin.
That interior perspective makes Radner’s departure from SNL — and much public performing — seem a relief rather than a loss. We may have wanted more, but as she attests here, she needed to discover who she truly was before she could continue to give herself away. The film’s vital late passages concern the stability Radner found in the most unlikely of places: a high-profile Hollywood marriage. Gene Wilder, her costar in Sidney Poitier’s Hanky Panky, comes across in private film footage as tender and loving, a spouse eager to share himself. That’s especially clear in a scene shot by Wilder of Radner undergoing chemotherapy in the late 1980s. Radner had suggested, we learn, that filming the session might make it an event rather than a drag, and she gamely acts out little comedy bits. Eventually, she unspools the scarf from her head to reveal a short shock of hair where once there had been that famous tangle. Radner beams at Wilder and asks how she looks, and he responds, with sincere awe, that she’s beautiful.