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The Many Legacies of Gilda Radner

The new documentary ‘Love, Gilda’ traces the life of the legendary ‘SNL’ star, with the help of the many comedians she influenced

Brian Taylor illustration

The first words of the rest of Gilda Radner’s life were, “It’s John Belushi. Do you want to be the girl in the show?”

The show in question wasn’t Saturday Night Live, where both Radner and Belushi would achieve supersonic fame as members of the inaugural Not Ready for Prime Time Players ensemble. It was The National Lampoon Radio Hour, a broadcast whose short tenure in the early 1970s belies the outsized influence of its participants, including Radner, Belushi, future costars Chevy Chase and Bill Murray, Christopher Guest, and Harold Ramis. Belushi wasn’t exaggerating: Radner was the girl in the show, a distinction so representative it could have been the title of the comedian’s autobiography. (When it was published posthumously, the book was instead titled It’s Always Something.)

This anecdote appears early in Love, Gilda, filmmaker Lisa D’Apolito’s tribute to Radner’s life and career. Between charming home videos of Radner’s childhood antics and a heartbreaking third act dedicated to her losing battle with cancer, the documentary—out this weekend—depicts a woman in an impossible position she made look easy. Gilda Radner wasn’t the only girl on SNL the way she was on National Lampoon. But she was one of a precious few, at a time when precedents were limited to a handful of figures like Elaine May or Lucille Ball. Radner’s unique charisma and people-pleasing tendencies were such that her femininity isn’t often remembered as part of her legacy—but Love, Gilda makes the case that it should be, in part because it’s what Gilda herself would have wanted.

“First and foremost, my main priority is that I am a girl,” Radner once wrote. D’Apolito recruited a host of contemporary comedians, either SNL cast members or close affiliates, to read from Radner’s journals; the first and most striking excerpt falls to Amy Poehler. “I never wanted to be anything else. I’m fascinated by boys, but I never wanted to be one.” Radner’s most famous characters aren’t commentaries on womanhood; they’re more like an active defiance of its demands, such as politesse or propriety: Roseanne Roseannadanna, the triangle-headed tough talker; Emily Litella, the little old lady; Judy Miller, the uninhibited child; Lisa Loopner, the bespectacled nerd. None of them are wallflowers. All are hilarious. Gilda Radner poured every part of herself into her work, even the parts the world wasn’t yet used to seeing.

Radner grew up in a well-off Jewish household in Detroit, emblematic of postwar prosperity—winters in Florida, all-girls private high school, live-in help—though with her own share of dysfunction that would follow her into adulthood. Radner’s father passed away when she was just a teenager, an event she speculated in her journals influenced her subsequent romantic history. She also overate, her efforts to mitigate the habit’s effect on her body leading directly to a sickness the people around her weren’t able to recognize as such. “We were aware of Gilda’s eating problems, but we didn’t know it was called bulimia,” SNL writer Marilyn Suzanne Miller told journalist James Andrew Miller for his seminal oral history of the show, Live From New York. “We thought it was this incredibly brilliant idea that Gilda thought up … nobody had said it was a disease. We just thought it was a great idea.”

At the University of Michigan, Radner studied theater but dropped out to follow a man to Canada, with plans to become a homemaker. The housewife lifestyle didn’t stick. “There was just a part of me that wasn’t being used,” we hear her confess in Love, Gilda, which weaves together clips from the It’s Always Something audiobook, radio interviews, and talk-show appearances into a makeshift voice-over. The effect is slightly uncanny, yet also gives the feeling that Radner had a say in how her story is told, even if she wasn’t around to shape the telling.

As the boyfriend drifted out of the picture, performance finally took center stage. A Canadian staging of Godspell brought together Radner, Martin Short, Andrea Martin, and future Letterman band leader Paul Shaffer under one artistic banner; after an interlude doing improv at Second City’s Toronto branch alongside Dan Aykroyd, it was on to New York—though not before Second City taught Radner some important lessons about the firm barriers within comedy’s ostensible freedom. “The guys would wanna work together, and the girls would say, ‘OK, let’s do this idea this way,’” she recalls. “Then the guys would realize they needed somebody to serve the coffee in the scene.”

Despite his instrumental role in advancing Radner’s career, Belushi was a classic example of the exclusionary chauvinist. “John absolutely didn’t like being in sketches with women,” cast member Jane Curtin recounted to Miller, a story corroborated by Lorne Michaels himself: “In the beginning, there were two things John didn’t do: He wouldn’t do drag, because it didn’t fit his description of what he should be doing. And he didn’t do pieces that Anne [Beatts] or Rosie [Shuster] wrote. So somebody would have to say that a guy had written it.” Nor was Belushi alone in his prejudice. In Love, Gilda, Shuster claims none of the male SNL cast members were willing to appear in a gender-flipped sketch in which female construction workers harass random men until Michaels strong-armed Aykroyd into participating. “We were the unholy three, I suppose,” Laraine Newman says of herself, Radner, and Curtin, the three female members of SNL’s seven-strong original cast. “But we were also the good girls. The boys were late, the girls were on time.” Women were offered a seat at the table, but they had to play by different rules.

So how did Radner manage to become one of SNL’s first bona fide superstars, winning an Emmy in 1978? Radner was hardly an ideologue or a crusader, though she credited feminism with opening doors both personal and creative: “As the years went on and the women’s movement changed so many things, that made me able to reflect that in my comedy.” Ironically, that reluctance to pick a fight worked in Radner’s favor. Radner was sweet, personable, likable—the very opposite of difficult. “These guys loved her,” a former National Lampoon production assistant observes in Love, Gilda. “She didn’t argue. She wasn’t a feminist saying, ‘I insist,’ because that wasn’t her personality.” Combined with an undeniable raw talent, Radner’s accommodation got the job done. She made men just comfortable enough to impress them, and forget why they were so resistant to being impressed.

To a contemporary viewer, it’s slightly infuriating that Radner had to be such an exceptional presence to get men to see her as more than her gender, though she was working at a time when doing so was the only viable option. But as uncomfortable a position as the cool-girl-who-can-hang might be, Radner truly could go toe to toe with her costars in timing, ingenuity, and above all, physical commitment. “She was an athlete,” Michaels marvels, and Love, Gilda splices together clip after clip to collectively showcase her sheer versatility: Gilda throwing herself at a wall. Gilda dancing badly for laughs. Gilda bouncing up and down like a marionette. Gilda sliding down a banister. Gilda impersonating Patti Smith. No less a modern slapstick than Melissa McCarthy credits Radner for inspiring her own mode of performance, accenting big gestures with small details.

“She had this thing that was so extreme that you could throw anything at it and it would hit the mark,” Bill Murray said in Live From New York. “Her own sense of childhood play was really her touchstone.” Along with Aykroyd, Murray is one of the more conspicuous absences from Love, Gilda, which touches on his and Radner’s intermittent relationship. “Gilda used to say it was hard for her to see Ghostbusters, because every single guy in the movie had been her boyfriend at one time or another,” laughs her childhood friend. Radner’s many romantic entanglements figure into the film’s portrait of her personal life, as well as the volatility and vulnerability that often influenced them.

“I was young enough to think that if you were as clever as Gilda was, and therefore blessed as Gilda was, what could ever make you unhappy?” Short, one of the few former love interests of Radner’s to sit for the film, reminisces. “But she would have depressions, and she would have emotional uncertainties.” Radner wasn’t a textbook example of the entertainer who draws laughs from despair, a superhero who brings joy to others at an intense personal cost. But she did have a complexity that the nature of her fame often obscured, both to the public and loved ones drawn in by her vitality. “She was very needy, and I don’t know that that was something that guys want,” Beatts notes. “Or at least the guys that she went after wanted.”

Radner is best remembered for her work on Saturday Night Live because she didn’t get much time to build a career after it. Along with the rest of the original cast—and, at least for a few years, Michaels—Radner left at the end of the show’s fifth season in 1980, having helped make the show into the institution and talent farm it’s known as today. She received a diagnosis of ovarian cancer six years later, and after several rounds of remission and resurgence, died in 1989, at just 42 years old. Throughout her illness, Radner was steadfastly cared for by her husband Gene Wilder, who she met while filming the Sidney Poitier film Hanky Panky; a Love, Gilda scene where Wilder wordlessly embraces Radner in her sickbed could draw tears from a boulder.

Held up against the careers of Aykroyd, Murray, and even Chase, the tragedy of Radner’s loss becomes apparent. SNL has a reputation as a stepping stone into the stratosphere, yet Radner never got to experience the full extent of the opportunities the show supposedly enabled. She never got her version of a Ghostbusters, or Blues Brothers, or Caddyshack. (None of Radner’s film collaborations with Wilder turned into a hit; their final pairing, horror comedy Haunted Honeymoon, was a notorious flop.) It’s possible that Radner would have found herself outmatched by Hollywood’s structural misogyny. Taking over a late-night weekend time slot no one wanted and leveraging it to stardom on your own merits is one thing; breaking into an established industry with its own bylaws, and limited roles for women, another. It’s also a shame Radner never got to try, let alone live to see an era of SNL with Tina Fey as head writer, or make a living until the opportunities caught up with her skill set. Gilda Radner was the girl in the show. Her successors get to be one among many.