November 26, 2018 – The comic character of Roseanne Roseannadanna was my favorite on Saturday Night Live, and I often think of one of that character's favorite catch phrases, “It's always something,” because so often that seems to sum up the way life, and death, is. When plans go awry, I am often reminded of that phrase, and it makes me smile, which is the whole point of it.
“It's always something” is the idea that just when we think we are cruising along through life with no problems, something always seems to comes along to throw a monkey wrench into our lives and disrupt our plans. Just when we think we are hot stuff, the masters of our fate, something comes along that shows us we at the mercy of events beyond our control. It represents the constant struggle between destiny and free will, between energy and entropy, life and death. We were always going to lose that battle. Gilda Radner's genius is she could turn that defeat into comedy.
When Gilda Radner was young, she had the idea that she could will herself to success in career, and in life, marriage, children, happiness. That seemed to work for a while, but there was always something that threw her for a loop. Her father, Herman Radner, a successful businessman, died when she was 14. That kept her from becoming an emotional adult for many years. She suffered from eating disorders starting at age 9. Theater gave her a way out.
A gifted comedienne, she gravitated towards the stage at an early age, and thrived on laughter throughout her life. She was very popular as a performer and had many boyfriends. She moved ahead rapidly in show business, working in improvisational comedy troupes like the National Lampoon actors, the Second City players (which included Bill Murray, John Candy, Dan Aykroyd, Tina Fey, Amy Poehler, Steve Carell, Stephen Colbert over the years) where she was discovered, along with many other Second City alums, by Lorne Michaels, producer of Saturday Night Live. Radner was the very first actor hired for that show before it went on the air in 1975.
Radner was more than just a performer on the live TV show, she was also a writer on the show and wrote a lot of the material she performed as one of several recurring characters, including Roseanne Roseannadanna, Emily “never mind” Litella, Candy Slice, Judy Miller and Lisa Loopner. The documentary includes interviews with Saturday Night Live cast members who worked with her.
The work load, pressures of performing year after year on the show, bulimia and her neuroses were among the factors that caused her to leave the show (after all the other first season performers had already left) in 1980. Her short-lived show business marriage to musician G. E. Smith was also in 1980. Radner went on to perform in her own Broadway show, “Gilda Radner - Live From New York,” which was made into the film “Gilda, Live.”
Her next show business marriage was a good one, to film star Gene Wilder (“Blazing Saddles” and “Young Frankenstein”). The pair made three films together, and remained together despite her miscarriage and illness. She died from ovarian cancer in 1989. In her final years, according to the documentary, she was finally able to be at peace with herself. She bravely fought on against cancer, but no longer had to battle against herself.
She regained her comic voice in her final years. She appeared on the Garry Shandling Show on TV and made jokes about her cancer. She also found release in writing a book, her own autobiography, called, of course, “It's Always Something.” It was released shortly after her death in 1989. Wilder was devastated. But he did help establish the Gilda Radner Hereditary Cancer Program at Cedars-Sinai Hospital, and Gilda's Club, a non-profit organization that supports people and their families living with cancer. This includes a network of cancer support clubhouses that have since merged with the Wellness Community to become Cancer Support Community clubhouses.
Director Lisa D'Apolito got much of the material for this movie from the book, “It's Always Something,” and from audio tapes, photos and journals that Radner had compiled while writing the book. Radner's brother, Michael, who appears in the film, made the materials available to Lisa for the movie. Actors, including Amy Poehler, Melissa McCarthy, Bill Hader, Chevy Chase and others appear in the film as themselves, and they also read passages from the book, or from Radner's journals.
The documentary also includes numerous clips from Radner's appearances on TV in movies and on stage. A number of actors, including some, like Martin Short, who knew Radner for many years, and others who worked with her in more recent years, also appear in this film. Everyone, it seems, loves Gilda, accessible, vulnerable, smart, funny, beautiful Gilda.
It was so sad when I heard of Gilda's death, and later, the death of her widower, Gene Wilder, in 2016. Those deaths left a hole in the world, sad notes in a time we could all use more comedy. This film is illuminated by the brilliant light that was Gilda Radner, a light which, I hope will live on until the end of time. This film rates a B.
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