Thursday, February 14, 2013

Gilda Live

I wonder of the moment when Gene Wilder first fell in love with Gilda Radner.  I haven't read a lot about their courtship, or her biography It's Always Something, so if it's documented I am unaware. As for me, invisible audience, my moment was on a Saturday night some time in the late 70s. She playing one of her patented characters on that popular late night show with which you may be familiar. I'm pretty sure it was during her Barbara Walters parody - "Barbara Wa Wa". I remember just thinking how funny and cute and talented she was. She didn't have that off-putting gruff edge like cast mates Jane Curtin and Lorraine Newman seemed to. Gilda was downright endearing.

When she started appearing in movies, sadly a string of duds like FIRST FAMILY, my crush nonetheless blossomed.  As my criteria for what I desired in a woman took form, I decided that I wanted to date a girl like Gilda: beautiful, hilarious, quick witted, a certain fearlessness and vulnerability at the same time. I was jealous that Wilder not only got to star with her in movies like HANKY PANKY and THE WOMAN IN RED, but got to marry her, too.  But I thought it was a perfect union. When cancer took Radner's life in 1989, I'm pretty sure I teared up.

Somehow, I'd never seen her 1980 concert film, GILDA LIVE, until just recently. I knew the songs from it, especially the opener, "Let's Talk Dirty to the Animals", a spicy number written by Saturday Night Live provocateur Michael O'Donoghue.  My 6th grade classmates used to sing it in the cafeteria.  "Never tell an alligator, bite my ......" That last word isn't what you'd immediately think.

But aside from that naughty little tune, GILDA LIVE is a pretty clean affair, not the expected bit of raunch at all. Nothing like when other SNL members cut loose off of network TV (Eddie Murphy et al.). Gilda's movie, shot by director Mike Nichols, captures the skits she played during a short Broadway run in 1979. Many of them are expansions of her TV personas.  Judy Miller is the spastic Brownie, a preteen screecher acting out her dream life right in her bedroom. Roseanne Rosannadanna delivers a commencement speech to college grads. Emily Litella is the elderly lady who mishears/misunderstands a subject (example: she wonders what all the fuss about "violins on television" is) and, once learning the actual topic, always ends the skit with "Never mind". Also, rock singer Candy Slice who amusingly tears it up on stage in a segment that is more fascinating than funny.

Radner also added some new characters to her repertoire - like the nerdy Lisa Loopner who plays "The Way We Were" on the piano, and promptly breaks down sobbing. Such a great bit.  It is a perfect representation of how thin the line between the tragic and the hysterically funny is, and how a subject, considered one or the other, can switch sides in an instant.

David Letterman's longtime band leader Paul Schaffer is seen in Gilda's back up band and in a few of the bits. Apparently his involvement with this show prevented him from playing piano in the Blues Brothers Band, costing him a role in their 1980 cult film.

While Gilda rushes backstage for multiple costume changes (Nichols' camera follows and captures the process), Father Guido Sarducci  (né Don Novello) does his own shtick, with surprisingly amusing results.  I was never a fan of what I always found to be his tedious, rarely funny act, but the material here is enjoyable.  Best bits: a side by side comparison of past and current Presidents of the U.S.A. and the "5 Minute University."

As funny as the rest of the material may be, my favorite parts of GILDA LIVE are the opening and closing, when Gilda is just Gilda, out of costume and letting her guard down.  The film begins with a medley of her days in Catholic school and the finale is a passionate ode to her long ago boyfriend, the one she danced with to old records in her basement. These scenes add the right amount of poignancy to this film, so strong at this late date for those who remember this wildly talented woman. The film ends with a freeze frame of the comedienne looking out over her audience. One wishes that that moment of triumph, of someone at perhaps their creative peak, and their embrace of appreciation, could've been savored far longer......

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