How I Learned More About Gilda Radner Than I Will Ever Know About Myself

A whole world opened up for Lisa D'Apolito when she made Love, Gilda, her documentary about the beloved late comedian.

Though I never met Gilda Radner, I went on a search for every detail of her life while making my documentary Love, Gilda. I do believe through this journey I have become a Gilda expert.

I wanted to know her life story inside and out. I started out reading Gilda’s book It’s Always Something and doing as much research about her as I could. I interviewed her friends, family members, fellow performers and anyone I could find who’d known Gilda and wanted to talk about her. I listened to stories from people who were there throughout her life and from those only there through brief periods, such as college, camp or Saturday Night Live. I heard a lot of fun Gilda stories, such as how she could play 22 bingo cards at the same time, was scared to fly on airplanes, and never missed anyone’s birthday and always sent thoughtful presents.

Gilda Radner with her husband, Gene Wilder

Through these meetings, I learned about Gilda through other people’s eyes and experiences. I also learned that different people could have different answers about how they thought Gilda felt about something. Did she love being in her Broadway show or not? Some said, “Yes, it was her dream!” Others said, “No, it was too much pressure for her.” A year before he died, I spent a day with Gilda’s husband, Gene Wilder, in the house where he and Gilda had lived together. Gilda loved Gene so much. When I asked him about her, he said, “I couldn’t live with her and I couldn’t live without her.” So, I started to learn some things that Gilda herself may or may not have known.

Gilda Radner’s brother Michael has been the biggest supporter of Love, Gilda, and about halfway through making the film he gave me access to her personal belongings, which had been in storage since she died more than 28 years ago. Gilda’s best friend Judy flew to Detroit to help me go through the boxes. In them were photos and photo albums, audiotapes, scripts. There were letters from Gilda’s lovers and letters she had written to her mother. It was overwhelming to touch Gilda’s personal possessions and to see her handwriting.

Gilda Radner and one of her photo albums

I felt a little awkward with these treasures, so that first time I only took away with me photos and a few VHS tapes. One tape had on it a film Gilda made of her ninth round of chemotherapy. It showed her in the hospital and I was able to see how funny she was, even when she was going through such a rough time. On the next trip, I felt braver and collected the audio tapes; some she had recorded for her book, others were from personal interviews she had done. Hearing Gilda talking and telling stories, I was transfixed. It felt like she was talking to me. My editors and my intern who was transcribing the tapes felt the same way. We heard Gilda’s voice telling her own stories and even giving movie reviews of films she had seen. She was so funny!

The last box contained Gilda’s personal diaries. Michael was at first reluctant to let me take the diaries with me, but finally he became comfortable with the idea. Reading someone’s personal thoughts is as intimate an experience as one can imagine. There was a diary from a college trip and a diary from after Gilda was diagnosed with cancer. But the most intimate was a diary she kept after she was hospitalized because of her eating disorder in 1978. It was heartbreaking. She was suffering so much at the height of her fame on Saturday Night Live. Despite that, Gilda’s spirit always came through in her writing and in her voice. Even in the darkest of times, Gilda could write and say the most emotional things, but still bounce back with humor.

Though I now had all these amazing materials, I still wanted more. Surely someone must have a video of Gilda at camp or as a teenager, I thought. Maybe some footage of one of her college performances? I begged Gilda’s friends to look and researched every source I could. Her friends were incredibly generous and went into their storage units and closets to search for things that had been untouched for decades.

My editors and I would talk about Gilda for hours. We would analyze every move, every decision she made personally or professionally. When I needed answers, I would call her friends or Michael, or reread the journals and listen to the audiotapes.

“Even in the darkest of times, Gilda could write and say the most emotional things, but still bounce back with humor.”

While making Love, Gilda, I started to think about my life. If there was a documentary made about me, who would be interviewed? There would be no diaries, as I’d torn up all of them previously because I felt I didn’t need them anymore. I never really had any home movies, so those couldn’t be included. Would someone else be able to capture who I was? But, then again, do I myself truly know who I am or what I have experienced? Where was I in the summer of 1976? I know where Gilda was. I couldn’t tell you why I dated that one awful boyfriend, yet I know clearly why Gilda got involved with Bill Murray. What was my relationship like with my mother? I never thought about it. But I can tell you all about Gilda’s relationship with her mom.

The truth is, I probably didn’t have a life that anyone would enjoy exploring as much as I enjoyed exploring Gilda’s. But, because of Love, Gilda, I have met amazing people, I have interviewed great comedians and I have created a film that audiences seem to love. Thank you, Gilda, for adding a new chapter to my life.

Lisa D’Apolito is a documentary and commercial director. She is the director of the Gilda Radner documentary, Love, Gilda, which was selected as the opening night film of the 2018 Tribeca Film Festival and is in select theaters from September 20 through Magnolia Pictures. Lisa started out as an actress in film, theater and television including a part in Goodfellas. She went on to producing and directing, making her way to SVP/EP of Production for FCB, an advertising agency and then to starting her own branded content production company 3 Faces Films. Her short narrative film, The Gynotician, starring Amber Tamblyn and David Cross, won several festival awards. Lisa was named one of Variety’s 10 Documentarians to Watch in 2018.