Just a few months before
Gilda Radner died in May of 1989, she released It's
a book about her struggle with ovarian cancer. Just reading
the book was a neurotic experience. Every thought Radner
had, from her need for attention and control to her drive
to find something funny about having cancer, was laid
bare like an exposed nerve. Any joy, panic, fear, or depression
translated directly to the page in language that was clearly
her own. It seems like little was corrected to make her
look better or to clarify any technical medical questions.
The whole battle was there, up until the point where she
thought she had won. She would never get to write the
punchline, but anyone who read the book knew how it ended.
That's what Gilda Radner:
It's Always Something aims to live up to. The ABC
biopic about Radner draws heavily on her book, sometimes
lifting whole scenes and dialogue straight from the page.
To keep Radner as the first-person narrator, she is shown
reading her book for the book on tape version, a task
she completed just three weeks before she died. It's a
conceit that allows many of Radner's daydreams and abstract
musings to come to life, like the parable about a woman
running from tigers in the opening scene. As a result,
the movie sometimes rivals the book's confusing, stream-of
-conscious style. But without the context the book is
able to provide,
these sequences can seem jumbled.
To combat this, Radner's
life is ordered chronologically in the movie once she
starts her flashbacks. All of the vignettes about her
childhood and rise to success on Saturday Night Live
are ordered neatly end-to-end in an attempt to give the
movie a more natural story arc than the book. There are
a few more such devices used to make the exposition fit
more neatly into the story. Radner relates her childhood
to a hippy therapist during her SNL days. The flashback
within a flashback is a bit distracting, but effective
nonetheless at cramming in a few more anecdotes and a
few more of Radner's tics and quirks from the book.
Most of the cast nail their
parts. Jami Gertz does a good job of balancing Radner's
charming child-like qualities with her more neurotic tendencies,
communicating a fairly accurate portrayal of the Radner
in her book. Her body language is impressive, even if
she sometimes lapses into a dialect straight out of Fargo.
Mather Zickel's Bill Murray is dead on, and John Viener
and Ari Cohen aptly mimic the voices of Chevy Chase and
SNL producer Lorne Michaels, respectively. Tom Rooney
is effective as Gene Wilder, Radner's second husband and
Still, most of the characters
the general public associates with Gilda Radner are only
bit players in the book, and largely function as background
here. The movie does add a bit more of Radner's history,
recreating specific scenes and characters from Radner's
time at Second City in Toronto and her run on SNL.
Emily Litella, Lisa Loopner, and Roseanne Rosannadanna
are the faces most viewers recognize and relate to, and
they are given their due screen time. The recreations
are capable and true to spirit, but most will want to
go back to old tapes of the first few seasons of Saturday
to get the true sense of the spark that made Radner's
That, of course, is the
problem tackling a subject like Gilda Radner. Or, for
that matter, Andy Kaufman, John Belushi, or any other
performer. The most the filmmakers can hope for is that
they convey a sense of depth beyond the original performance,
and maybe make people nostalgic enough to go back and
look at their memories in context. Without a Ken Burns-like
epic, most biopics can only scratch the surface.
In the case of It's
Always Something, Radner looked back on her life in
the context of having cancer, and that perspective is
as difficult to communicate as Radner's essence as a performer.
Radner went through treatment after treatment, including
spiritual healing through The Wellness Center, a bout
with macrobiotic dieting, traditional chemotherapy, and
later, experimental multi-drug treatments. She bounced
back and forth from hope to despair, from remission to
regeneration, until she realized she would
never live without cancer.
The movie condenses this
struggle into Radner's time at The Wellness Center and
her first chemotherapy, combining several doctors into
one, and showing one remission. It's basically the Cliff
Notes version of a monumental struggle, hitting as many
emotional pressure points as possible before Radner finally
wraps the taping, reading the last page of her book. In
her book, Radner was able to generate a feeling that bordered
on empathy (if such a thing is possible), but the movie
generates mostly sympathy. In one of the added scenes
from her Second City days, Radner comes off as
a fearless performer, devoted to the laugh at any cost.
John Belushi accidentally punches her in the face during
a sketch, and she moves on quickly, silently assuring
Belushi she is okay. It is in this fearlessness, contrasted
with Radner's abject terror of what cancer will do to
her and her career, that Radner's true character comes
out. The movie gives a fair, if incomplete, portrayal
of this central theme.
Not surprisingly, the most
effective part of the movie is when the real Gilda Radner
makes an appearance. After a quick fade-out, the filmmakers
rightly give Radner the last word, showing the last scene
from her SNL film, La Dolce Gilda. Radner is dressed
stylishly, shown in black and white, begging the camera
to stop following her. She hams it up, mugging and gesturing,
and delivers her last line, "Dreams are like paper, they
tear so easily. But
I like to play."
If it seems like an overly
broad ploy, well, so were Radner's best characters. Radner
was no less effective a comedian for it. And if Gilda
Always Something was meant to remind us of that, then
it succeeds in the end.
Gilda Radner: It's Always
Something airs Monday, April 29th at 9PM ET on ABC,
following Gilda's Greatest Moments, a one-hour
tribute to Gilda Radner.