Thursday, May 20, 2010

Remembering... Gilda Radner

There are several truisms at play in the life of Gilda Radner - namely that comedy comes from pain, only the good die young, and that angels walk among us...

PhotobucketWhile her childhood was a happy one - to which even she would have attested - adolescence and young adulthood were not so kind. She was fourteen when her father died, which invariably leads to mishegas of one kind or another, and in Gilda's case that meant an eating disorder. As discussed by her lifelong friend David Saltman in his memoir of her, an illegal abortion in college scarred her emotionally as well. And then, of course, there was her meteoric rise to fame through the famed Second City comedy troupe and the syndicated National Lampoon Radio Hour - both of which were raided by Lorne Michaels when he was putting together the Not Ready For Prime Time Players, to feature on an irreverent new late night show eventually called Saturday Night Live. Gilda was the first to be cast.

As has been discussed time and again on the Pop Culture Institute, youthful fame is corrosive, and invariably exacerbates - rather than eradicates - existing problems. Such was the case with Gilda, whose ambivalence towards fame meant that she would often become angry when strangers (ie: fans) approached her in public, and depressed when they didn't; Gilda's time on the show is discussed extensively (if selectively) in Live From New York: An Uncensored History of Saturday Night Live by Tom Shales and James Andrew Miller. Likewise, her work on the show is gradually being released on DVD, and allows us to not only see her brilliance emerging for ourselves but to reassess our own impressions of it as well.

A relationship with fellow cast member Bill Murray ended badly, and after she'd left the show in 1980 she made an ill-advised marriage to bandleader G. E. Smith, all of which seemed to conspire to keep Gilda unhappy, even as her career was going great guns. Her one-woman show Gilda Live! is such quality entertainment it has yet to be released on DVD, where dreck flourishes and quality founders**. All that looked about to change, though, when on the set of the film Hanky Panky Gilda met and fell in love - as she later described it 'at first sight' - with co-star Gene Wilder. Together they would make two more movies together: 1984's The Woman in Red, and 1986's Haunted Honeymoon. No doubt they would still be making movies together today, if only Fate hadn't seen fit to intervene.

Early in 1986 Gilda began to feel sick, and in October of that year was diagnosed with ovarian cancer; her treatment was less than aggressive, her illness voracious. Despite an early remission, in 1989 her cancer returned. Three days before her death she was admitted to Cedars-Sinai Medical Center in Los Angeles, a scene heartbreakingly described for posterity by Wilder himself; as she was being wheeled in for a CAT-scan nurses attempted to sedate her. She became wild, refusing to accept the morphine, raving that if they gave her anything she'd never wake up. Eventually, she did take the morphine, and she never woke up.  In life, as in comedy, her instincts were impeccable.

Gilda Radner died on this day in 1989; she was 42.

So while her life was short and easily taken, her legacy has proven long and will live on. Since 1991 many Gilda's Club branches have sprung up around North America to help those living with cancer (and those living with those living with cancer). Having won an Emmy Award for her work on SNL in 1977, she was posthumously awarded a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame, which is located at 6801 Hollywood Blvd. Yet a star on Earth hardly seems tribute enough for one whose place in the firmament shines brighter with each passing year...

*Season One, Season Two, and Season Three have been out for awhile, and Season Four was released at Christmas 2008, while Season Five followed a year later - at which time it joined its mates in the collection here at PCI. Season Four is the most pertinent to this post, since that's the season for which she won her Emmy.
**Not that I'm bitter.

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