The distaff cohort of the original Not Ready for Prime Time Players fared poorly in terms of translating their success on Saturday Night Live into film careers, even though their (white) male colleagues—Aykroyd, Belushi, Chase, and late arrival Murray—all became huge stars. (Where have you gone, Garrett Morris?) Of the few significant movies starring the first wave of SNL ladies, the concert film Gilda Live is probably the best. Directed by the formidable Mike Nichols, who adapted a stage production originally helmed by SNL head honcho Lorne Michaels, Gilda Live is essentially the feature-length equivalent of a variety show, mixing comedy and music without a whiff of glitz or tackiness.
Gilda Live comes across as a deeply sincere presentation, which suits Gilda Radner’s reputation as one of the nicest people ever to grace the SNL stage. In fact, despite brief flashes of raunchiness and a drug reference or two, most of the bits in Gilda Live are downright family-friendly. Whereas many SNL performers throughout the show’s history have cultivated rock-star personas by pushing the boundaries of good taste, Radner fills Gilda Live with gently satirical characterizations as well as outright sweetness. To some degree, this first-do-no-harm approach to comedy diminishes the film’s potency, because Radner’s style lacks danger and surprise. Furthermore, because many skits are straight repeats from SNL (such as Radner’s portrayal of a drugged-out rocker with a resemblance to Patti Smith), there’s a bit of been-there/done-that complacency to the whole enterprise. Nonetheless, the staging is so smooth that Gilda Live is a breezy viewing experience.
Filmed in Manhattan’s Winter Garden Theatre, which later became the home of Cats for a zillion years, Gilda Live captures and condenses Radner’s relatively elaborate show, which features slick set changes, interstitial bits by Don Novello playing his SNL mainstay “Father Guido Sarducci,” and supporting work by musicians and singers. (Paul Shaffer performs onstage in several scenes and also reprises his amusing portrayal of real-life concert promoter Don Kirshner.) Radner plays many of her beloved SNL characters, including Emily Litella, Judy Miller, and Rosanne Roseannadanna (sorry, no Baba Wawa), in addition to performing several songs written for the stage show. One highlight is the cheerfully filthy opener, “Let’s Talk Dirty to the Animals,” though the nostalgic warmth of the ’50s-influenced closer “Honey (Touch Me With My Clothes On)” suits Radner’s persona perfectly. (Both tunes were written by SNL scribe Michael O’Donoghue.) Throughout the movie, Radner’s acting and singing are impressive in similar ways—what she lacks in technical proficiency, she makes up for in commitment, likeability, and versatility.
Gilda Live: GROOVY