“Maybe you know me. Maybe you don’t. Or maybe you heard of me but never saw me, or maybe you used to know me but don’t know me anymore. But one time in my life, I was famous. And it seemed like everyone knew me.”
Those are Gilda Radner’s words read aloud by Bill Hader in Love, Gilda, the new documentary about the life, career, and legacy of the original Saturday Night Live cast member, which opened the 2018 Tribeca Film Festival in New York City Wednesday night.
The event was introduced by none other than Tina Fey, who teared up while explaining how much Radner meant to her, and how moving she found Love, Gilda’s glimpse into the complexities of her life.
“It feels like you’re having an intimate, honest conversation with Gilda herself,” Fey said about the film, which chronicles Radner’s life from childhood to supernova SNL fame to her battle with bulimia and, ultimately, her passing from ovarian cancer.
“We talk so much right now about visibility and representation in TV, which I think is so important,” she continued, her voice breaking.
“I can personally attest, and I feel comfortable speaking for Amy Poehler, Maya Rudolph, and Rachel Dratch when I say that seeing Gilda as a kid, and she was so lovely, but she was also so authentically herself and so regular in so many ways,” Fey said. “She was not a piece of casting, she was who she was on TV. We all saw that and said, ‘I want to do that, and it’s possible because I see her doing that.’”
After an applause break while Fey wiped her tears, she went on: “It was an early example for me of how important representation is, for everyone from every walk of life. Gilda was our equivalent of Michelle Obama.”
The audience at the Beacon Theater, where the premiere took place, burst out in laughter and applause.
Love, Gilda, from first-time filmmaker Lisa D’Apolito, mines through interview footage, audio tapes of Radner telling stories about her life, and Radner’s own home movies—including some incredibly emotional ones filmed during her battle with cancer—and intersperses them with on-camera commentary from the likes of former co-stars Chevy Chase and Bill Murray and admirers including Amy Poehler and Melissa McCarthy.
Stars including Fey, Chase, Billy Crystal, Lorne Michaels, and Robert De Niro turned out for the Tribeca premiere. At a festival boasting the splashy premieres, screenings, and panels featuring the cast of Westworld, Robert De Niro, John Legend, Alec Baldwin, and polarizing figures like Rachel Dolezal and Paris Hilton, it certainly speaks to the moment that the hottest ticket is an intimate window into the inner workings of a woman who changed culture as we know it by simply making us laugh.
The archival footage of Radner in the film is an obvious joy. Gone too soon and taken too tragically, it remains bittersweet to revisit just how alive she was, kinetic energy manifested in frizzy, gawky glory.
Where Love, Gilda succeeds most, though, is in tapping into that melancholy, shading the portrait of Radner we have in our minds with deeper aspects of her humanity, bringing that image into sharper focus. It’s then, too, we are reminded of—or maybe even become aware of for the first time—the toll it must have taken to be such a groundbreaker for women in comedy, to have that spotlight on her, and just how much is owed to her, as Fey said in her opening remarks, for any strides that have been taken towards gender equality in her field.
The tenderest moments of the film come when SNL players who have succeeded her, including Amy Poehler, Cecily Strong, and Maya Rudolph, read aloud entries from her personal diaries.
“First and foremost, above everything else, my main priority is that I’m a girl,” Poehler reads. “I’ve never wanted to be anything else. I’m fascinated with boys, but I never wanted to be one.” Ad-libbing her own reaction, Poehler quips, “I agree, Gilda!”
“To be a girl and be funny means you have to sacrifice a lot of things because of your loud mouth,” reads Cecily Strong.
“Being neurotic was the only subject I didn’t have to research,” reads Bill Hader.
There might be added layers of meaning in the fact that, though those entries were written by Radner more than three decades ago, her words reflect the painful reckonings of female performers today. But more than that, and complicated as they might be, they answer a burning question: What must it have been like? What must it have been like for Gilda?
Love, Gilda is a canny choice to open this year’s festival for several reasons. Though the Tribeca Film Festival’s roster and its reach has exploded over the last 16 years, it was launched in 2002 by Jane Rosenthal, Craig Hatkoff, and Robert De Niro in part to bring vitality and cultural meaning to downtown Manhattan following the World Trade Center attacks, and it has never wavered in its intrinsic New York-ness. Few entities scream New York and, more specifically, New York culture and impact louder than Saturday Night Live, which might explain why documentaries about the venerable sketch program have played opening night twice in the last three years. (Bao Nguyen’s Live From New York! kicked off 2015’s proceedings.)
But choosing a documentary with Radner, of all people, as the subject sends a reverberating, of-the-moment message.
Gilda Radner was a trailblazer, a woman in comedy who pioneered by fact of simply existing.
“I can’t even begin to imagine how I got famous,” she writes in a diary entry read aloud by Maya Rudolph. “It seems like I just took the next job and it turned out that millions of people were watching me do it.” She’s a woman who made history and served as an example through her job. By being so authentically who she was, a transfixing and fearless comic who showed that you can be neurotic and strange and feminine and funny all at the same, she forged a path that’s still being bulldozed, and started a conversation about how we see women that’s still being had.
It’s been nearly three decades since her death, but Radner’s story and her contributions pierce a cultural moment in which women are taking the megaphone, taking to the streets, taking control of their stories, and demanding their worth. To that point, it’s not only noteworthy that Tribeca’s opening film is about a woman like Radner, but it’s also by a female filmmaker, D’Apolito.
At this year’s Tribeca Film Festival, 46 percent of all features are by female filmmakers, a move towards gender parity of creative voices that is certainly in contrast to dismal industry statistics: just 4 percent of the top 100 films last year were directed by women.
At a time when inclusion is evolving from a mere mission statement to a rally cry demand, film festivals have been leading by example. At this year’s Sundance, 37 percent of films were directed by women, including Grand Jury Prize winner The Miseducation of Cameron Post (directed by Desiree Akhavan and also screening at Tribeca) and Best Director winner, Sara Colangelo for The Kindergarten Teacher. For the first time in a decade, the majority of the Cannes Critics’ Week lineup is directed by women, with four of the seven features from female filmmakers.
As for why that’s so important, you only need to hear more from Fey about what seeing a film like Love, Gilda, told with so much care by D’Apolito, meant to her. “[This] is why Lisa’s film feels like a miracle to me,” she said. “It felt like I was getting to spend time with someone that I never knew, that I very much would have wanted to spend time with.”