Finding Gilda Radner: How One Woman Went From an Actress to a Feature Filmmaker Who Would Open the Tribeca Film Fest After Being Inspired by Gilda

This weekend, “Love, Gilda” the documentary about comedy legend Gilda Radner is in theaters that opened this year’s Tribeca Film Fest is in theaters. I spoke to the film’s director, Lisa Dapolito, about how the film came about.

Lisa Dapolito was a working actress, who also directed commercial videos when a job working with a cancer support center inspired her to take a big leap-  to make her first feature-length documentary film. The support center was Gilda’s Place, the film would become a beautiful, hilarious and sometimes heartbreaking film about a beautiful, hilarious and sometimes heartbroken comedic legend: Gilda Radner.

It seemed that everyone who grew up in the 70’s and many for decades to come loved Gilda. She inspired an endless list of women and men to become comedians and comedic performers, and legions of comedy fans fell in love with her. Dapolito admits she wasn’t really one of them before she started working with Gilda’s Place. It wasn’t that she disliked Radner- she just wasn’t a diehard fan, and told me she didn’t even really watch Saturday Night Live growing up.  The only real recollection she has of Gilda and SNL as a kid was being unfavorably compared to one of Gilda’s many beloved characters- Lisa Loopner. But years later she’d come to be closer to Gilda that most admirers and she’d come to love all of Gilda’s creations. But it wasn’t Saturday Night Live, or films or Rosesanne Roseannadanna or Emily Litella that inspired Lisa Dapolito to make a film about Gilda, it was Gilda’s place.

“When I was interviewing people at Gilda’s Club, I just fell in love with Gilda’s Club. And when people talked about Gilda, they just have a light. Gilda just puts a smile on people’s faces,” Lisa told me, smiling at the recollection.  That’s when she knew she wanted to learn more. Lily Safani, who is the head of Gilda’s Club connected her to Gilda’s SNL writing partner, Alan Zweibel, and that was all it took to be on the path to making the film. She remembers that week well. It was a Tuesday, and Allan said to her, come over and interview Robin [his wife] and I on Thursday.  At the time, she hadn’t even started making the film, but she didn’t want to miss such a great opportunity. “I just got a crew together and shot. So, it kind of just started that way, and I just talked to Alan and Robin for three and a half hours and they showed me all these personal photos of Gilda. So, that kind of just, it just sort of stuck. It just happened.”

Dapolito had no studio behind her, no real funding source, and she was short on connections, but each person she interviewed would provide another lead. “It took a while to get each person to trust me,” she recalled, “but one person led to the next person who led to the next.” About six months into the process, Lisa met Michael, Gilda’s brother, and that’s where she found the treasure trove that would provide the narrative for the film- Gilda herself. Michael had saved boxes of Gilda’s things, and kept them all in storage. It took some time for Lisa to gain Michael’s trust, but once she did, he gave her access to that storage, and turned over an incredible wealth of autobiographical material.

“Michael didn’t even know what he had in those boxes,” she said. “He knew he had photos. He originally took them out to show me the photos,” she said. There were also lots of tapes- both audio cassettes and hundreds of VHS tapes, many of them just tv shows he, his mother or Gilda had recorded on their VCR. Lisa knew somewhere there was a videotape Gilda made of her ninth chemotherapy session that she had written about in her book. “I was like, I wonder if any of those videotapes are in there.” So Lisa and Gilda’s best friend Judy went through the boxes and not only found the tape, but also audiotapes of radio interviews, 30 hours of audiotapes that Gilda had recorded for her book “It’s Always Something”, and letters, and journals. “It was pretty overwhelming, ’cause you don’t want to just take somebody’s… like “Hey, I’m gonna take all this stuff back to New York.”

Up until that point, Dapolito had only seen interviews on network television, but now she started getting into the real Gilda. “Her diaries were the last things I started to read and it was her personal diary.” Many of the tapes were too damaged to use in the film, but just hearing them was inspirational. “I heard her talking, and I heard her how she tells the story, which is always funny. Like you know people always like, how would you describe Gilda? It would be “funny.” She really is funny.”

Thanks to those archives, the narrative and the narration for “Love, Gilda” came from Radner herself culled from 22 different audio sources. Anytime you hear someone talking and don’t see them- that’s Gilda, which isn’t always readily apparent as her voice changed over time and was recorded on different media formats. It took weeks of restoration to get those tapes into usable condition, and not everything was salvageable. Dapolito told me about one story that didn’t make the cut because the audio quality wasn’t strong enough.

“There was an emotional story that I loved that I kept in the film until everyone was like, “You can’t keep that,” but there was a story about Gilda at camp and she had been a chubby child. So, she went to camp and she wanted to be in plays, and she said all the pretty girls in the camp would be the princesses and all the controlling girls would be next to the princesses, and then it would be her, the fat girl who was the servant. And she talks about how she would cry in her cabin at night, and then she realized she wasn’t gonna be pretty, but she could be funny. Which she always struggled, I mean, I think she’s so pretty. But she always struggled with never thinking she was pretty, but like funny, she could be funny. And I love that story. It even goes on to like, “I would sit by myself in my bunk bed and I would eat Tootsie Rolls”. It was such a good story. But the audio was so bad. And then we didn’t have any visuals to go with it and I didn’t want to recreate. I wanted everything to be organic, like Gilda’s voice, those writings are her writings.”

Gilda’s journals would also become an important storytelling tool. “The diaries had things in it that Gilda never said, and her friends never said, or if they said it, it wasn’t as impactful as Gilda’s writings of her real darkness, her feelings of loneliness, her feelings of her eating disorder, her lack of relationships.”

Lisa also spoke to so many comedians and friends– besides the Zweibels’ there was Chevy Chase, Lorne Michaels, Laraine Newman, Paul Shaffer and Martin Short. And then what she called the “modern days comedians” added yet another layer. Amy Poehler, Melissa McCarthy, Cecily Strong, Maya Rudolph and Bill Hader, for example. They’re the ones who open the film, emotionally pouring over Gilda’s handwritten journals. Dapolito said she wasn’t expecting them to react so strongly. She knew she wanted some of those comedians to read passages from the journal but hadn’t yet decided how to handle that cinematically. She filmed Amy Poehler first. “I wanted them to read, but I didn’t want to show it to them beforehand, ’cause I didn’t want it to be rehearsed, and I didn’t know how I was gonna get her to do it.” One of the producers suggested just taking out the journals and reading something out loud. Before she could start reading, Poehler reacted. “Oh my God, is that Gilda’s journal?” And I just gave it to her and she’s going through it. And she’s like mouthing. I said, “Can you read it?” And she picked up stuff and read it, and everybody was the same way.”

“They just loved her,” Dapolito said. “And were so inspired by her. Really watching, I think they watched her later, ’cause they weren’t kids at the time, but they discovered her. I think also they had not seen a woman doing what Gilda did. Gilda was such a positive, playful comedian. She had characters like Candy Slice and Roseanne Roseannadanna, but there was this exuberance of spirit that there were great, like the Phyllis Dillers and the Joan Rivers, and the funny, there’s a lot of funny comedians. Of course, Carol Burnett and Lucy. But I think Gilda just had this exuberance and this physical comedy.”

The archival material materials are no longer gathering dust. They’ve been transcribed, catalogued, and digitized and are now stored in a more protective environment waiting for a future home, possibly at a place like the National Comedy Center. But for now there’s the film for Gilda’s fans to connect with.

Dapolito also had a chance to speak with the man Gilda called the love of her life, Gene Wilder, before he passed away in 2016. The interview was not recorded out of respect for Wilder’s illness. He was suffering from Alzheimer’s disease and dealing with bouts of dementia.  “It was just an honor,” she said of the opportunity to connect with him. “Michael and Gilda’s friends had all been writing to him asking him to see me, and no one had seen him in a couple years. He wasn’t in the public and he didn’t respond back to anyone, and I would write letters and they would forward it to him. And then I was on a shoot shooting a commercial in LA, and his wife Karen called me and she’s like, “Gene would like to see you on Saturday.” Dapolito was in L.A. working, an asked if she could see him the following week. She described Gene a “like a beautiful spirit. He was shaky and frail, and for the first few hours he was pretty clear, like his stories were pretty clear. Then things would kick in and I didn’t know what he was talking about, but it was in the house that him and Gilda lived in and he told me stories. A lot of very clear stories about them together, and I can see why she loved him so much. And he was funny. People are telling me Gene wasn’t funny in real life, but he was funny in real life. And there’s something kind of childlike about him. I think it was more there was a childlike spirit or fantasy world thing that Gilda had, too.  He told me he couldn’t live with her and he couldn’t live without her. Cause there were mixed signals about what their relationship was like, but I always went with what was Gilda’s point of view since she’s telling the story and she adored him and loved him without a doubt. Whether he felt the same or not, but he did. And that kind of summed up their relationship to me.”

I asked Lisa if there was a lingering question, something she would ask Gilda herself, if she could. “I don’t know if there’s anything I wanted to know that I didn’t know,” she said. “I think I would probably ask her for advice. She seemed like such a good friend. I would want her to be my friend and give me some advice, you know?” She added, “I’m pretty happy with what I know about Gilda. When I was making the film, I was like, “What would surprise me about Gilda?” Maybe she murdered somebody? I don’t know. There’s no surprises. Except for her inner…” she trailed off for a moment, thinking, and finally said. “That’s what I learned, is her loneliness.”

Love, Gilda is in theaters now.

Director Lisa Dapolito

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