Love, Gilda Hits on the Truth
Gilda Radner was the first person offered a role on the original cast of Saturday Night Live. In the film Love, Gilda director Lisa D'Apolito weaves together excerpts from Radner’s journals, comments she had written on scripts, and video footage taken of Radner from her childhood in Detroit, her tenure on SNL, the one-woman show she did on Broadway, and and her years-long battle with ovarian cancer. Through the film, the audience is surrounded by Radner’s words, Radner’s voice, and Radner’s infectious laugh. It’s as though Radner had produced Love, Gilda herself posthumously.
Tension is a theme that runs throughout the film. The tension of trying to achieve an ideal weight, and being put on diet pills by her mother when she was only 10 years old. The tension of seeing her father die of cancer when she was a teenager and vowing never to grow up. The tension of performing a weekly satire in front of a live studio audience every Saturday night week after week, year after year. The tension of being under constant pressure to create, to keep it edgy and interesting, always on the brink of collapse. The tension of living in an abnormal world for too long and the inevitable emotional breakdown that ensued. The tension of a cancer diagnosis. The tension of rising to the occasion, never knowing the outcome in advance.
Radner found her voice, in real-time, with feedback from the audience. She didn’t create in a vacuum. She created as part of a team, under tight deadlines, shielded (at least at the beginning) from all of the success they had accrued. It worked because it was live, and messy, and at any point it could all go away. The tension is what held it all together.
What I admire most about Radner is the generous way in which she made it possible for others to benefit from her suffering. That’s what comics do. They take the hardest, messiest, ugliest, most shame-inducing things that happen and turn them into something that’s less scary and less damaging. Radner said it best herself,
“Comedy is hitting on the truth before the other guy thinks of it.”
Even after her ovarian diagnosis and multiple relapses, she wanted her inevitable death to help others. She chose to be on-camera during the ups and downs, because that’s when she did her best work. She also watched old SNL reruns to get her through the pain, because on screen she saw her friends and the characters she played, not her ovarian cancer. The woman who once told the world, “I can do almost anything if people are laughing” reached deep inside herself and asked herself, “Who can I be to get through this?”
Perhaps that’s the takeaway here. We all come into the world through the characters we play. We adopt a different posture and a different view of life depending on what we decide to project. This act can allow us to overcome our deepest fears and inadequacies, but if we’re not careful, it can leave us lonesome for ourselves. Love, Gilda challenges us to see the world through the eyes of the first person who got away with saying “bitch” on TV and the first person to make a cancer joke and makes us believe that we too have it within ourselves to do almost anything.