When “Saturday Night Live” creator Lorne Michaels assembled the original Not Ready for Prime Time Players in 1975, the first cast member he hired wasn’t Chevy Chase or John Belushi or Dan Aykroyd.
It was Gilda Radner.
By that point, the 28-year-old Radner had made a name for herself in comedic circles via her work with the Second City troupe in Toronto and on the syndicated National Lampoon Radio Hour alongside the likes of Belushi, Chase and Bill Murray.
But in the early years of “SNL,” when Radner gave us obnoxious TV news commentator Roseanne Roseannadanna, hard-of-hearing old lady Emily Litella and nerdy Lisa Loopner, she became rock-star famous and created a body of work that has influenced generations of comedic performers.
In Lisa D’Apolito’s affectionate, well-crafted but maddeningly short “Love, Gilda,” we are reminded of Radner’s sunny brilliance as a performer, we see how easy it was for millions of fans (and a Who’s Who of co-stars) to fall in love with her, we’re blown away by her courage as she battles cancer — and we feel the loss all over again when Gilda dies in 1989 at just 42.
“Love, Gilda” was made with the cooperation of the Radner estate, giving D’Apolito unprecedented access to a gold mine of Gilda’s written journals, her personal audio and videotapes — and home movies of her childhood in then-booming Detroit.
In those early clips, we see an effervescent girl performing mini-routines for family and neighbors. Gilda was a little overweight as a child, and apparently that was a cause of embarrassment to her mother, who put her on diet pills when Gilda was just 10. (As an adult, Radner would battle bulimia.)
D’Apolito takes us through touchstones in Radner’s career, from her work with the 1972 Toronto cast of “Godspell,” which included Martin Short, Eugene Levy and Andrea Martin; and her time with the National Lampoon Radio Hour in New York in 1974, when John Belushi called Radner and told her she could be “the girl in the show.”
In a nice touch, D’Apolito enlists Amy Poehler, Melissa McCarthy, Maya Rudolph, Cecily Strong and Bill Hader to read excerpts from Gilda’s journals. Chase, Short, writer-producer Alan Zweibel and Gilda’s brother Michael share memories. (Alas, we don’t hear from the mercurial Bill Murray, Radner’s “SNL” partner in comedy and onetime romantic interest.)
And we often hear from Gilda herself, via audio recordings she made while putting together her autobiography “It’s Always Something,” which was published two weeks after her death.
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All too quickly, we arrive in the early 1980s, when Radner fell in love with Gene Wilder on the set of “Hanky Panky.” (Radner then appeared in Wilder’s “The Woman in Red” in 1984 and co-starred with Wilder in the 1986 bomb “Haunted Honeymoon,” which would be her last movie role.)
Radner was diagnosed with ovarian cancer in 1986. We see video footage of Wilder visiting Gilda in the hospital; Gilda welcoming friends to her home, as she refuses to become the star of a pity party, and (during a period of remission) a hilarious guest appearance on “It’s Garry Shandling’s Show,” where Gilda milks the audience for applause while Shandling scolds her for looking at the camera.
Those last years of Radner’s life could easily merit a full-length documentary. D’Apolito does a beautiful job of honoring Radner, but I found myself wishing “Love, Gilda” was a two-part, four-hour documentary, a la Judd Apatow’s “The Zen Diaries of Garry Shandling.”
There’s just too much Gilda greatness — on and off camera — to be contained in an 86-minute box.
Magnolia Pictures presents a documentary directed by Lisa D’Apolito. No MPAA rating. Running time: 86 minutes. Opens Friday at Landmark Century Centre.