Gilda Radner in the documentary “Love, Gilda” (Photo/Courtesy SFJFF)
Gilda Radner in the documentary “Love, Gilda” (Photo/Courtesy SFJFF)

‘Love, Gilda’ reveals the pain and persistence behind the laughter

The late, great sketch comedian Gilda Radner was always embraced by the Jewish community as one of their own, but offstage and out of character, her Jewish identity was more of an enigma.

“I think you would have to ask Gilda if she considered herself a Jewish comedian,” mused Laraine Newman, her friend and fellow Jewish cast mate on “Saturday Night Live.” “I couldn’t characterize her one way or the other. I would think that would have to come from her.”

Instead, in “Love, Gilda,” filmmaker Lisa D’Apolito did the next best thing: She wisely channeled Radner’s voice through a trove of personal audiotapes and diary entries (read by contemporary comics Amy Poehler, Maya Rudolph, Melissa McCarthy and others).

The deeply affectionate and painfully revealing documentary, which opened the San Francisco Jewish Film Festival in July to rousing applause, opens Friday, Sept. 21 in the Bay Area. D’Apolito and Newman spoke with J. when they were in San Francisco for the festival.

Radner grew up in a well-off Jewish family in Detroit. But her beloved father was diagnosed with a brain tumor when she was 12 and died two years later. Her mother delegated many of the child-raising duties to others, and the film hints that she was not the most supportive parent.

“Gilda was also raised by her nanny, who happened to be Christian,” D’Apolito said. “So Gilda observed all kinds of different religions, and what she identified with, I wasn’t really sure. I wanted to cover where I thought some of her insecurities came from. Losing her father was really important — and her mother putting her on diet pills.”

The nanny, Dibby, was the inspiration for one of Radner’s most popular “SNL” characters, Emily Litella. As for the diet pills, Gilda’s body image issues as an adolescent led to eating disorders that plagued her into adulthood.

“When I found the audiotapes, it was so different to hear her talking than to see her on an interview or hear people talking about her,” D’Apolito said. “It was just mesmerizing, because you get a real sense of Gilda. She’s sitting in a café talking to somebody, she’s ordering things, she’s telling stories and she’s extremely intelligent and extremely funny. That was really important to me, that an audience have the same experience I had.”

D’Apolito interviewed some of the same people Radner spoke about on the tapes, including musician Paul Shaffer, actor Martin Short and writer Alan Zweibel, among others. Alas, Gene Wilder, the love of Radner’s life and her husband from 1984 until she died in 1989, was too ill to participate. (He died in August 2016.)

“Gene was everything she was looking for, because he was a Jewish guy from the Midwest,” D’Apolito says of the Milwaukee native, born Jerome Silberman. “That’s what she always wanted, I’ve been told.”

Losing her father was really important — and her mother putting her on diet pills.

Radner and Wilder met on the set of the 1980s film “Hanky Panky” that originally was going to co-star Richard Pryor and was rewritten for a female lead. Wilder then directed Radner (and himself) in equally disappointing comedies, “The Woman in Red” and “Haunted Honeymoon.”

In front of the camera, the brashness and vitality of Radner’s work showed “that she never doubted she was equal to any man,” D’Apolito said. “That’s what I take away from Gilda’s performances.”

Newman laments that Radner’s movie career suffered because directors and producers did not know how to cast her in roles where her talents could best shine.

“The specific nature of her talent was she did characters, and she would probably have been better served if she had taken part in writing the things that she did,” Newman asserts. “But I don’t think it occurred to her. If she and Alan Zweibel had collaborated on a feature, it might have been a whole different thing.”

D’Apolito’s connection to Radner goes back to the first videos she directed eight years ago for Gilda’s Club, a support group founded by Wilder in New York after Radner died from ovarian cancer at age 42.

D’Apolito didn’t meet Wilder, however, until he invited the filmmaker to his house the year before he died. They spent a memorable day talking and hanging out with his dogs.

“Somehow, at the end of the day, Gene and I just sat in the garden together,” she recalls. “I could see why Gilda loved him.”

“Love, Gilda” opens Friday, Sept. 21 at the Embarcadero Center Cinemas in San Francisco, the Shattuck in Berkeley and the Smith Rafael Film Center in San Rafael (86 minutes, unrated).

Michael Fox

Michael Fox is a longtime film journalist and critic, and a member of the San Francisco Film Critics Circle. He is the curator and host of the CinemaLit film series at the Mechanics’ Institute and teaches documentary classes at the Osher Lifelong Learning Institute programs at U.C. Berkeley and S.F. State. In 2015, the San Francisco Film Society added Fox to Essential SF, its ongoing compendium of the Bay Area film community's most vital figures and institutions.