I vividly remember watching Gilda Radner on Saturday Night Live in the 1970s. All of the original Not Ready for Prime Time Players were funny in their own ways, but the rubber-limbed Detroit native was the most gifted physical performer. She also created some of the most memorable characters, from news commentator Emily Litella, a discombobulated version of her beloved nanny, to slovenly rock singer Candy Slice, her unhinged take on Patti Smith.
During her relatively brief lifetime, Radner kept journals in which she recorded her thoughts, which leaned more towards the sober than the goofy. Debut director Lisa D'Apolito uses passages from those journals in combination with home movies, audiotapes, and material from Radner's 1989 memoir, It's Always Something, to shape her affectionate portrait of the comedian.
Radner explains that she felt drawn to comedy from an early age, "because I was not a perfect example of my gender," so she "decided to be funny about what I didn't have instead of worrying about it." If she enjoyed a comfortable childhood in Michigan and Florida, loneliness led to overeating which led to teasing which led to humor as a coping device. Comedy became something more when she turned to performing in high school and college. Then she dropped out to become a housewife, but Toronto's theater scene proved irresistible. Martin Short, her boyfriend at the time, thought she had it all.
He wasn't wrong. When John Belushi invited her to join The National Lampoon Radio Hour, she moved to New York, and when Lorne Michaels launched Saturday Night Live, she was the first person he cast. For those who've read James Andrew Miller and Tom Shales' oral history of the show, Live from New York, there aren't many surprises here, but it's still nice to hear from Chevy Chase and Laraine Newman. More recent SNL cast members, like Amy Poehler and Bill Hader, also show up to read from her journals.
For most of the film, D'Apolito focuses on Radner's career, while touching on personal issues, like an eating disorder, and a love life that included Bill Murray, G.E. Smith, and Gene Wilder. If she found domestic tranquility with Wilder, her second husband, and their Yorkshire terrier, Sparkle, the documentary takes a darker turn as her movie career fails to take flight, she experiences a miscarriage, and then she finds out she has ovarian cancer.
Radner made the most of the time she had left, but you can feel the walls closing in, even as D'Apolito attempts to elevate the happier moments of her final years. The result is an unavoidably slight, if touching portrait of a talented woman who deserved more time to find a creatively fulfilling second act.
For more information about this and other movies opening this weekend, visit Movie Times.