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Love, Gilda

Gene Wilder, Sparkle and Gilda Radner in "Love, Gilda" 

“NBC’s Saturday Night” hit the airwaves in Oct. 1975, and by the end of the year, it had turned pop culture on its head with its biting, oft-hilarious sketches, musical performances and the Not Ready for Prime Time Players, a brilliant young cast of comedians that became overnight sensations.

It’s brightest star, arguably, was one of the three women — a thin, big-haired comic genius who did Lucille Ball-style, scatterbrained slapstick and created enduring characters, like the hard-of-hearing little old lady Emily Litella, the nerdy Lisa Loopner and, of course, the loud, brash Roseanne Roseannadanna.

Her name was Gilda Radner and, for about a half-dozen years, there was no bigger star who moved on to Broadway and film from what later became known as "Saturday Night Live."

In 1985, Radner discovered she had ovarian cancer and, in 1989, she died at age 42, her frank and moving autobiography published just two weeks after she passed.

Now her writing and cassette recordings for that book play a key role in “Love, Gilda,” Lisa DaPolito’s documentary that spins together home movies, TV and film clips, interviews with Radner’s family, friends and co-workers, and her voice into a touching look at Gilda, whose life wasn’t always as fun or funny as she made it appear on stage and screen.

Largely told chronologically, the picture begins in Detroit, where little Gilda was a funny but chubby girl, her weight worrying her mother. But as she used her inane comic sense to win friends, she became one of the popular kids at her all-girls school and soon headed to the University of Michigan to study acting.

She didn’t finish college, moving to Toronto with a boyfriend. It was there she began her rise to comic fame, joining a “Godspell” troupe with a very young Martin Short, then moving on to Second City and the National Lampoon Radio Hour before, when spotted by producer Lorne Michaels, becoming the first Not Ready for Prime Time Player.

That’s just a brief biographical sketch. What “Love, Gilda” shows is what happened behind the bio — be it Short, who was one of Radner’s many boyfriends, and musician Paul Shaffer talking about her work in Toronto, “Saturday Night Live” writers talking about her contributions to the sketches, or Chevy Chase and Laraine Newman reflecting on the show.

But, as those interviewed and Radner reveal, she wasn’t always happy, and battled an eating disorder in a quest to remain thin that eventually landed her in the hospital.

The final chapter in her tragically short life began when she met Gene Wilder on the set of “Hanky Panky.” He was the love of her life, and the pair married, seemingly headed for happily ever after — until the cancer diagnosis.

Then, as the film touchingly shows, Radner battled and came out laughing, trying to use her comedy to not only beat her disease but help others do the same.

That’s the final takeaway from “Love, Gilda,” a picture that, for those of us who remember the early days of “Saturday Night Live,” brings back an old, very funny friend. And for those who never saw Radner, it’s a wonderful introduction to one of the great comediennes of the last 50 years.

Reach the writer at 402-473-7244 or kwolgamott@journalstar.com.

On Twitter @LJSWolgamott.

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Entertainment reporter/columnist

L. Kent Wolgamott is an entertainment reporter and columnist.

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