Gilda Radner: It's Always Something
ABC's new Gilda Radner biopic is a mixed bag
By Nick A. Zaino III

Just a few months before Gilda Radner died in May of 1989, she released It's Always Something, 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 soulmate.

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 Night Live to get the true sense of the spark that made Radner's characters special.

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 Radner: It's 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.