Tuesday, April 2, 2013

Unsung!: Gilda Live!

This movie and I go way back.

You need to see Gilda Live! It defines a point in time, and the zeitgeist of that point in time: the point when the seventies (which, let us all admit, was really just the hangover of the sixties) became the eighties. It was also the era of my adolescence, but I do not feel that I am merely romanticizing my youth. It really was a distinct moment – the post-Watergate moment when the country turned from idealism to individualism, from community spirit to corporate spirit, and from genuine concerns into the endless abyss of the ironic.

The date is November 22, 1975. I am thirteen years old. I am in the seventh grade. I seldom stay up this late. I stumble upon a new NBC show called Saturday Night. It was the seventh episode, hosted by Lily Tomlin. It is still hard to convey how different that show was from everything else anyone had ever seen on television. The next day, I thought I had dreamt it – I kept asking myself “What the heck was that?” SNL signaled a seismic cultural shift. It was as if the show was shouting, “Buckle your fucking safety belts, Baby Boomers; the age of easy irony is upon you.”
I would say that I had a crush on Gilda Radner, but it was not a normal crush. The warm feelings I held for her in my seventh-grade heart were very different from the similarly warm feelings I held for the tattered copy of Playboy that somehow fell into my hands or my Farrah Fawcett poster. In my fantasy, Gilda Radner was my sister — the sweet, funny sister who did not mind if you hung around. This was Gilda Radner’s appeal.

Gilda Radner shone on television, but she was not well served by the movies: First Family (one of the worst comedy films ever made), Hanky Panky, The Woman in Red, the almost forgotten (and rightfully so) Movers and Shakers, and Haunted Honeymoon. These roles represent a series of quirky sisters, frightened fianc├ęs, and mousy secretaries; none of these films took advantage of even a tenth of her talent. This reminds me of something my esteemed film professor Dr. David Desser used to say in class when comparing the two media: “On television, you are how you are. In the movies, you are how you look.”

Gilda Live!, which was based on Radner’s Broadway show of the same name, represents something of a bastard hybrid between her television and film work, as such affords us all a look at what made her so special, for the first and only time, on film.

STILL ANOTHER ANNOYING AUTOBIOGRAPHICAL PAUSE: I actually saw the original Broadway show when it toured the country in about 1978 and came to the Arie Crown Theater in Chicago. This may have been the first professional live theatre performance I ever attended; even way back then, live theater had priced itself out of the budgets of most high-school students. My friend Terry and I were rabid SNL junkies, so we swallowed hard, shelled out for the tickets, and drove into the city to see the show.

It was incredible. She was actually there… not “TV there,” but “THERE THERE.” I knew I would be seeing Gilda Radner live, but I was not prepared for what a presence she actually was. One of the things no movie could ever convey is Radner’s sheer physical presence – and what an exhausting show this had to be to perform night after night. Terry and I laughed a lot. We were moved. We discovered the magic of live performance.

Gilda Live! the movie is a mere shadow of that live performance, but it is the only shadow we are still able to access.

The original stage show was titled Gilda Radner: Live From New York, but the film’s title is shortened to Gilda Live! and not just for brevity. The film is not a record of the show’s original Winter Garden Theater run (though the Winter Garden is shown at the beginning with people filing in); most of it was filmed during an abbreviated run in Boston that was performed just for the cameras, and a few sections were “flown in” from other performances at the Boston Academy of Music. The producers said this had to be done because of “union problems” in New York. Sheesh. (A year and a half later, Cats would take the stage at the Winter Garden and begin its record-setting eighteen year run there.)

TRIVIA: The guitarist in Gilda’s band was G.E. Smith, who would later become the front man for the SNL house band. Gilda and G.E. met during the original production of Gilda Radner: Live From New York, and later married. In Gilda Live!, during the Candy Slice sketch, watch for when she jumps on his back – they are obviously having genuine fun. They are falling in love!

CAVEAT: Gilda Live! features far too much Father Guido Sarducci. Due to the nature of a one-woman show (and because Lorne Michaels, who directed the original Broadway run, was unwilling to program the show any other way) Gilda needed “space” for scenery and costume changes. Because each individual sketch is so short (SNL length), the show ends up with a lot of these gaps. Sarducci fills them with “in-front-of-the-curtain” monologues. Don Novello, who plays the good father, would later decant his portion of the show and release it as the comedy album Father Guido Sarducci, Live from St. Douglas Convent.

Half of the show/movie is a rehash of old SNL skits, which seems like a cheat because audiences were being asked to pay for material they were previously able to see for free on television. Radner trots out the predictable SNL characters: Roseanne Roseannadanna, Lisa Loopner, Candy Slice, Emily Littella, and Judy Miller. With the exception of the Judy Miller sketch — which I feel must better encapsulate what it feels like to be an eight-year-old girl than some whole novels — these sketches feel like an airless “greatest hits” outing; there are many laughs, but very little soul.

How ironic then, that while most people came to see those familiar characters, the material created for the Broadway show is much better, and becomes the true highlight of the movie: “Let's Talk Dirty To The Animals,“ “I Love To Be Unhappy,” and “Honey (Touch Me With My Clothes On).“

ANOTHER CAVEAT: Am I suggesting that you see this movie for what amounts to fifteen minutes of material? Absolutely I am.

These three original pieces are interesting for a number of reasons: 1) they are all musical numbers; 2) they are the only ones that feature Radner not in character, but as herself; and 3) they best represent the film’s journey from the ironic to the genuine.

“Let’s Talk Dirty to the Animals” is the show’s opener. It is written by Michael O’Donoghue, and is the sole reason the movie is rated R. Certainly what sells the number more than the admittedly clever and obscene lyrics is Radner’s joyful and un-embarrassed delivery of them.

IS HE KIDDING WITH THESE ANNOYING AUTOBIOGRAPHICAL PAUSES?: In college my friends and I were never content to be mere run-of-the-mill weekend alcoholics. We would often host elaborate costume parties because nothing disguises abusive binge drinking better than wearing an elaborate costume. There was the “All-Star Dead Party;” where you had to come dressed as your favorite deceased celebrity; there was “Fake Spring Break,” held in November, where we brought 40 pound bags of sand into the apartment and turned our kitchen into a makeshift sandbox; and there was “Let’s Talk Dirty To The Animals,” our tribute to Gilda. We held that one in a HOTEL.

“I Love To Be Unhappy” presents Radner at an audition, a situation that we can imagine she was intimately familiar before being cast on SNL. Gilda sings and dances up a storm, although the main joke here seems to be that she was not a technically skilled dancer. This certainly adds to the joke that her tombstone reads “Gilda Radner Wilder, 1946 – 1989, Comedienne/Ballerina.”

I saw this movie on the day it opened at the late, lamented Arlington Theater in Arlington Heights, Illinois. I was on a date. Much to the chagrin of our fellow moviegoers, my date and I… how can I put this… we were YOUNG… we were much more interested… in each other… than the film. Sigh. I went back alone to see it again the next day.

The show’s closing number is “Honey (Touch Me With My Clothes On)” in which Radner recounts what she calls one of the most romantic moments of her life: sitting with her boyfriend after Prom and listening to Mel Brooks and Carl Reiner’s 2000 Year-Old Man comedy album. The song’s mood is honest and genuine, and completes the journey the show has made from ribaldry and irony to the sweet and the real. The lyrics of the song try to put into words what Van Morrison once called “the inarticulate speech of the heart:”

Honey, touch me
With my clothes on.
Sweetie, Baby,
Longer than you do.
Honey, kiss me,
With your mouth closed,
Just like you love me,
And I love you.

Irony always sat uneasily on Radner’s head; she was non-ironic (or perhaps post- ironic) in the floodwaters of irony unleashed by the early SNL. This was her appeal. This is the reason you need to seek out Gilda Live! She had genuine warmth and genuine talent; she was the real fish swimming against the current of comedy fads, fashions, and ironic sensibilities.

Last year another friend of mine, Nicole, adapted and directed a competitive speech performance piece based on Alan Zwiebel’s book Bunny Bunny, which relates his decades-long friendship with Radner and his sadness upon her death. There is nothing less ironic than cancer. In 2014, Gilda Radner will have been gone for twenty five years.

Gilda Live! has never received a proper DVD release; it is only available as a Warner Brothers Manufacture-On-Demand title, and I am betting it is the one Mike Nichols film my readers have never seen. Gilda Live! is intensely interesting for what it shows us about the past and for what it shows us about this remarkable performer.


  1. I reviewed the Gilda Live! on-demand DVD a few years back, after having gone through the first 5 season sets. I enjoyed the movie, and I love Radner, but minus the nostalgia it felt too much like a greatest hits run of sketches and characters that worked better on SNL. Even so, I agree it's worth watching because Radner is worth watching. I'll also defend the Sarducci segments. According to the review I barely remember writing, his segments were some of my favorite things in the movie.

  2. I agree that Sarducci is a hoot; I have always thought that. I just think it is disingenuous to advertise a show as GILDA LIVE and have it turn out to be 30% Sarducci!

    1. Fair point. I kinda wish they'd gone all the way and brought in other SNL alum for her to play off. Lisa Loopner just isn't the same without Todd.

  3. Definitely doing to try and check this out based on your essay, JB, but I think we all want to know: what deceased celebrity did you go as?

    (Seriously, I still miss Gilda hard.)

  4. I had two costumes that night. Before midnight, I was dressed as Gandhi. Then, at midnight, I shaved my mustache, slicked back my hair, put on a sharkskin suit, and returned to the festivities as Lenny Bruce. Oh, those were the days.