In Theaters

It’s been said that the ability to make others laugh is one of the greatest gifts anyone can possess. Laughter lifts spirits, brings joy and, as the old adage contends, serves as the best medicine. That’s something a beloved, gifted comedienne successfully discovered the meaning of for herself – on all of those fronts – as fittingly and lovingly depicted in the heartwarming new documentary, “Love, Gilda” (web site, trailer).

Gilda Radner (1946-1989) broke ground on many levels. As the first cast member selected for the audacious new late night sketch comedy series Saturday Night (now Saturday Night Live) in 1975, Radner played a key role in redefining humor, TV and the American popular cultural landscape. With her warm, bubbly persona, combined with her talent for enlivening such memorable characters as crotchety, hard-of-hearing senior Emily Litella, opinionated Latina news commentator Roseanne Roseannadanna, spaced-out punk rocker Candy Slice, linguistically challenged TV reporter Baba Wawa and effervescent, overly imaginative preteen Judy Miller, Gilda became an overnight sensation and audience favorite. She left an indelible mark on the television world and the hearts of millions while inspiring countless aspiring comedians.

But, in many ways, this came as no surprise, given that this talent seemed to come naturally to the Detroit-born comic. From early on in her childhood, Gilda was a cut-up, finding it effortless to disappear into comedic character and making others laugh, a gift she freely shared with friends and family.

Comedienne Gilda Radner (second from left) appears with staff writer Tom Schiller (left) and fellow cast members John Belushi (center), Dan Aykroyd (second from right) and Jane Curtin (right) on the set of Saturday Night Live, as seen in the heartfelt new documentary, “Love, Gilda.” Photo courtesy of Magnolia Pictures.

What’s less known, however, is that this ability served a purpose other than entertaining those around her; it also gave Gilda a defense mechanism to protect herself from the criticisms of others. As a chubby child, she was frequently chided about her weight. But Gilda wouldn’t allow this to get her down; whenever she would be bullied about her chunky appearance, she’d simply make a joke about it, defusing the situation and turning things around on her detractors. This skill would later prove to be an important element of her professional success as well, one that she would readily make use of whenever she found herself in the middle of a routine that wasn’t working out as hoped for. By impulsively doing or saying something funny to compensate for such unfolding failures, she could successfully transform poorly conceived material into a source of uproarious laughs, allowing even the worst routines to sparkle and appear completely natural.

As Radner grew into adolescence and adulthood, she parlayed her talents into successes in high school and college productions, followed by stints in the Canadian company of Godspell and Toronto’s Second City troupe and then as a cast member of the National Lampoon Radio Hour. Through these involvements she met longtime friends and collaborators John Belushi, Bill Murray, Chevy Chase, Martin Short and Paul Shaffer. These experiences also provided the springboards for the immense success awaiting her during her five years as a cast member of Saturday Night Live.

Radner’s contributions to that show helped establish the legacy of a program that has lasted for over 40 years. As part of the Not Ready for Prime Time Players, she and fellow collaborators Belushi, Murray and Chase, along with her other colleagues Dan Aykroyd, Jane Curtin, Laraine Newman and Garrett Morris, set a standard that has endured and influenced the many cast members who have since become part of the show’s heritage. Interviews with Chase and Newman, longtime producer Lorne Michaels, staff writers Alan Zweibel and Anne Beatts, and subsequent show hosts and cast alumni Melissa McCarthy, Amy Poehler, Bill Hader and Maya Rudolph reveal the tremendous respect, gratitude and admiration that they hold for Gilda and her comic contributions, all of them truly honored to have worked with her or follow in her footsteps.

Comedienne Gilda Radner (left) poses with comic John Belushi (right), one of her cohorts on the National Lampoon Radio Hour and Saturday Night Live, as depicted in director Lisa D’Apolito’s new loving tribute to the comedic genius, “Love, Gilda.” Photo courtesy of Magnolia Pictures.

Gilda’s accomplishments did not end with SNL either. She staged a tremendously popular one-woman Broadway show in 1979, and she subsequently went on to make five feature films, three of them (“Hanky Panky” (1982), “The Woman in Red” (1984) and “Haunted Honeymoon” (1986)) with co-star and future husband Gene Wilder (1933-2016). But, for all of the challenges she successfully took on through these endeavors, her greatest one was yet to come.

In the mid-1980s, Gilda began feeling tired and suffered from pelvic cramping. She sought medical help, which repeatedly concluded that everything was fine. However, as a subsequent CAT scan revealed, there was something very wrong – Gilda was diagnosed with Stage IV ovarian cancer.

According to those who knew Radner, she was initially woefully depressed. However, she soon realized that, if she were to beat this disease, she would need to tackle it head on. And, in typical Gilda fashion, she did so by employing the same tactic she used to take on her childhood detractors – humor. With the assistance of her SNL colleague Alan Zweibel, Gilda took the bold step to attempt something that no one had tried before – finding a way to make cancer funny.

Given the prevailing taboo about laughing at a debilitating, often-fatal illness, Gilda took a big risk with this venture. But, believing she had nothing to lose, she moved forward with her plan, making a critically acclaimed appearance on the comedy series It’s Garry Shandling’s Show in 1987 in which she lampooned her illness. This cutting-edge material raised some eyebrows, but it also successfully challenged one of life’s seemingly untouchable sacred cows. Gilda had thus broken through yet another barrier, the first comic ever to do so.

Unfortunately, Radner’s appearance on that show was her last time on TV. Even though the disease had apparently gone into remission, it came back. Gilda continued treatment, but fighting back became progressively more difficult. However, despite the lack of public appearances, Gilda wasn’t done yet. She wrote a memoir titled It’s Always Something, a reference to the signature tagline of her Roseanne Roseannadanna character. She also became actively involved with cancer support groups. Although initially reluctant to participate, she had a complete change of heart after attending a meeting at a wellness center. With the uplifting humor that made her so famous, Gilda picked up where she left off in this new venue. The stage may have been different and considerably smaller, but the impact she had there was just as important as what she accomplished in the limelight.

In happy times, comedienne Gilda Radner (left) shares the tremendous love she felt for husband and feature film co-star Gene Wilder (right), as seen in the heartfelt new documentary, “Love, Gilda.” Photo courtesy of Magnolia Pictures.

Through her involvement with these support outlets, Gilda left an impact that’s still being felt to this day. With the enthusiastic assistance of husband Gene Wilder, Gilda launched efforts aimed at encouraging ovarian cancer screening for women, especially those in high-risk groups. Her courageous battle against her illness also inspired the formation of Gilda’s Club, a nationwide network of affiliated clubhouses where cancer patients and their families and friends can meet to offer one another support and to discuss their circumstances. Thankfully, Gilda’s spirit lives on through these programs and institutions. And, because of that, she continues to prove, as she did in all of her other endeavors, that laughter truly is the best medicine.

Although she died young, Gilda packed a lot of living into her 42 years, and much of it involved her doing what she wanted to do. Despite the sometimes-unfavorable conditions that dogged her at various times in her life, she overcame these circumstances by doing what she did best – successfully drawing on her talents and abilities. She was so proficient at this both personally and professionally, in fact, that virtually everything she undertook succeeded brilliantly.

This is not to suggest that she didn’t experience challenges along the way. The aforementioned childhood criticisms about her weight, for instance, were a source of personal frustration and irritation, a creation that, at first glance, might seem to have served little purpose. But, despite the difficulties this caused, it had an upside, too, in that it pushed her to continue honing her comedic talents, humorously making light of those who criticized her. Indeed, sometimes subjecting ourselves to a little adversity serves to strengthen us in ways that we may not be able to envision or understand at the time we experience it, proof that our beliefs can work to our benefit, even when the impact of their manifestations isn’t readily obvious at the time.

Gene Wilder (left) and Gilda Radner (right) appear on the set of their film “Haunted Honeymoon” (1986), one of three pictures they made together, as seen in the new documentary, “Love, Gilda.” Photo courtesy of Magnolia Pictures.

By galvanizing herself in her abilities, Gilda broke through fears that might have held her back. It enabled her to live courageously, to take risks that other might shudder at. And, in the process, it allowed her to smash through barriers that benefited herself, as well as those who followed in her footsteps. For example, Gilda was the first person to say “bitch” on network television. But, because this once-forbidden word was uttered by her character Emily Litella, censors saw its usage coming from a sweet old lady as benign, reasoning, “What harm could there be in that?” And, then, of course, there was Gilda’s lighthearted take on cancer, something that once would have been considered unthinkable. But, since she knew how to make this sensitive subject funny, she got away it and did so successfully, opening a door previously sealed tight.

But Gilda’s comedy was only part of what she gave us. When we look at what came about from her influence in the time since her passing – the cancer screening programs, Gilda’s Club and a better understanding of the impact of using humor as an additional weapon in helping to fight illness – she left a meaningful legacy, one that transcended her tremendous accomplishments as a comedic talent. She did more than just make people laugh; she left a legacy that has touched countless individuals, including some who may have never seen any of her brilliant routines. That’s a lot to leave behind.

Like the protagonist herself, it’s hard not to like “Love, Gilda.” This heartfelt tribute to one of the comedy greats of the last century pays sincere homage to her body of work through footage of her routines and the recollections of those who knew her or followed in her footsteps. With a wealth of archive material (some of it quite rare) and interviews with an array of those who shared the personal and professional stage with Gilda, director Lisa D’Apolito’s feature film debut provides a comprehensive look at the comedienne’s life, one sure to evoke both laughter and tears and doing so in a way that genuinely earns those emotions. In addition, through voiceovers, readings and graphic displays, the film features excerpts from the extensive collection of personal journals that Radner kept, revealing, for the first time, her innermost feelings about herself, her work, her battle against cancer and her outlook on life. Through this combination of elements, Gilda comes back to life, even though, in many ways, it’s always felt like she never left us.

We’re all a little better off for having had this loving and laughing spirit spend some time with us, no matter how short, on this plane of existence. She made us smile, she made us cry, but she also made us happy. And we can never thank her enough for that.

A complete review is available by clicking here.

A Classic Remade

Reaching for the stars is a dream to which many of us aspire. The prospects of glitz, glamor and success beckon, calling us to them. But attaining those goals requires much of us, and it may be more than we can handle. Such is the struggle depicted in the latest remake of a timeless Hollywood classic, “A Star Is Born” (web site, trailer).

Rocker Jackson Maine (Bradley Cooper) has started falling on hard times. Even though he still draws large crowds to his concerts, he’s begun a downward spiral, often lapsing into drunken stupors and suffering from a growing issue with tinnitus. His manager and older brother, Bobby (Sam Elliott), does his best to prop up his younger sibling, but, over time, that has become an increasingly difficult challenge. Those close to him can’t help but wonder if he’s ever going to recover.

And then one night, quite unexpectedly, a new spark enters Jackson’s life. While paying an impromptu visit to a music club after one of his concerts, he stumbles upon a singer whose steamy rendition of Édith Piaf’s La Vie en Rose blows him away. Captivated, he goes back stage after the performance to meet the struggling artist, an unknown singer-songwriter named Ally (Lady Gaga). A strong chemistry between the two develops almost immediately, and, before long, Jackson and Ally become involved in all kinds of collaborations, both personal and professional.

Ally’s big break comes when Jackson coaxes her on stage at one of his concerts to perform one of her songs. She becomes an instant hit, and Jackson takes pride in helping launch her career. Their romance blossoms at the same time, and the aging rocker seems to be getting his life back together – that is, until the student’s success surpasses that of the teacher. With professional jealousies rearing their ugly head, circumstances begin to deteriorate. Jackson’s health and career suffer, and his reckless behavior threatens his relationship, as well as Ally’s professional success. Indeed, the question again arises, will Jackson be able to turn things around?

This classic tale of personal and professional pathos in the entertainment industry examines the age-old question of what it means to be a success and how to handle what comes with it. As alluring as the limelight may seem, it can come with many challenges. The stress of always having to be “on” places considerable pressure on those who find themselves in the midst of these conditions, and those circumstances can be made worse when aggravated by issues like professional rivalry, failing health and ghosts of the past, all of which factor into play in this tale. What’s more, such scenarios can wreak havoc with one’s relationship, pushing the limits of what’s tolerable in a romantic context. As becomes evident, the question of how much love is able to overcome difficulties looms large where Jackson and Ally are concerned.

In its fourth screen iteration, having previously been made in 1937, 1954 and 1976, this rendition of “A Star Is Born” capably continues the tradition, faithfully following the established narrative. Filmmaker Bradley Cooper’s directorial debut is musically brilliant and features a fine supporting cast including the likes of Dave Chappelle and Andrew Dice Clay. But, above all, the film provides a great showcase for the singing and acting of Lady Gaga in her first leading role.

Despite these strengths, however, the picture is weakest in its writing, which successfully incorporates a refreshingly surprising amount of humor but, regrettably, suffers from some prolonged bloat, particularly in the film’s second half. It also includes some inconsistent character development in which the leads’ personas inexplicably and frequently bounce back and forth between polar opposites. Overall, while this offering is certainly a fine springboard for the film’s leading lady, it’s a story that should probably be given a prolonged rest before anyone considers remaking it yet again.

Daring to dream can be a fulfilling experience. And realizing them can be even better. But we had better be prepared for everything that comes with them, for better or worse, lest we miss out on an opportunity for what could be one of the greatest joys of our lives. 

Making Peace with the Voice Within

Most of us have experienced situations where we hear something inside our heads and we don’t know where the information is coming from. What are we to do? Listen to it? Dismiss it? Check ourselves into a psych ward? Such internal utterances can make us uncomfortable, especially when they appear unexpectedly. But, by the same token, if we pay attention, we just might find that they prove highly beneficial, something a reluctant hero discovers for himself in the new superhero action-adventure, “Venom” (web site, trailer).

Maverick investigative reporter Eddie Brock (Tom Hardy) takes a lot of chances in his work. Some of his efforts pay off, yielding beneficial and revelatory outcomes, but others get him and his employer in deep trouble. He genuinely sees himself as a crusader, but this attitude can cause problems when he doesn’t temper his approach with common sense – especially when he recklessly fails to get his facts straight.

Investigative reporter Eddie Brock (Tom Hardy) embarks on an incredible odyssey that begins with an interview gone wrong as seen in the new action-adventure superhero saga, “Venom.” Photo by Frank Masi, © CTMG, Inc., courtesy of Sony Pictures Entertainment Inc.

Nevertheless, Eddie has developed quite a following, and, when he lands a big interview with multifaceted scientific and corporate visionary Carlton Drake (Riz Ahmed), he’s eager to speak with his subject. Drake is a hot topic of late, particularly for his company’s development of what is believed to be a line of revolutionary new pharmaceuticals. But he’s also attracted a lot of attention as a result of the crash of one of his organization’s rockets upon its reentry from a deep space mission, an undertaking whose purpose has been carefully kept under wraps (and whose implications, in light of the crash, are shrouded in mystery).

Despite the generally favorable press Drake has generated for himself, the naturally skeptical Eddie is suspicious about the entrepreneur. On some level, Eddie doesn’t trust him, believing him to be a crook, perhaps even evil. And, when the time for the interview comes, he plans to ambush his subject with potentially damaging evidence about him that he clandestinely obtained from the laptop of his fiancée, Anne Weying (Michelle Williams), a lawyer whose firm represents Drake’s company.

Investigative reporter Eddie Brock (Tom Hardy, right) and his fiancée, Anne Weying (Michelle Williams, left), share good times before everything goes haywire in their lives in the new action-adventure saga, “Venom.” Photo by Frank Masi, © CTMG, Inc., courtesy of Sony Pictures Entertainment Inc.

Needless to say, the interview doesn’t go well, and Eddie is booted from Drake’s property. In turn, he loses his job, and then Anne breaks off their engagement when she discovers how he obtained the information about her client, a move that got her fired as well.

Having lost everything, Eddie descends into a prolonged downward spiral with no work or meaningful prospects for the future. But, as it turns out, he was right to have his suspicions, particularly when he’s approached with damning evidence by one of Drake’s chief scientists, Dr. Dora Skirth (Jenny Slate). The whistleblower informs Eddie that the mission associated with his failed rocket was a visit to a comet to collect samples of extraterrestrial biological life forms to be used in controversial research involving the symbiotic fusion of the aliens with humans, a speculative effort aimed at making it possible to create a new species of earthlings capable of surviving off-world. Skirth says her decision to come forward now is her ethical discomfort with the studies, given that they employ “volunteers” – many of them homeless and uneducated – who don’t fully understand what they’re getting themselves into.

Investigative reporter Eddie Brock (Tom Hardy, left) has a contentious interview with scientific and corporate visionary Carlton Drake (Riz Ahmed, right) that leads to an incredible odyssey in “Venom.” Photo by Frank Masi, © CTMG, Inc., courtesy of Sony Pictures Entertainment Inc.

Although initially reluctant to get involved, Eddie relents and agrees to help the good doctor. She sneaks Eddie into Drake’s corporate headquarters, but, through a series of unfortunate events, he ends up being exposed to one of the aliens, who aggressively and quickly invades his body. Suddenly, Eddie finds his life drastically transformed. Having become symbiotically fused with a creature who calls himself “Venom,” Eddie now has powers and abilities he never could have imagined – some good, some bad.

Thus begins the uneasy cohabitation of two beings within one body. Eddie and Venom go through an adjustment period in which they each get to know one another and their abilities. Venom instructs Eddie in what he can do now, while Eddie educates Venom about which forms of earthly behavior are acceptable and which are not. They also begin working on deciding what they want to do together, specifically when it comes to what they want to do about Drake, someone with whom they both have points of contention. It makes for an interesting collaboration.

The odyssey of Eddie and Venom is superficially an action-adventure story, but there are things going on beneath the surface of the narrative. Most notably the film deals with learning how to listen to our voice within, particularly when it comes to following what it has to say. This is the chief means that Eddie and Venom use to communicate with one another, both in mundane, practical terms, as well as in the conveyance of meaningful insights.

Whistleblower Dr. Dora Skirth (Jenny Slate, left) plans to blow the lid off the questionable research efforts of her boss, Carlton Drake (Riz Ahmed, center), in the new action-adventure saga, “Venom.” Photo by Frank Masi, © CTMG, Inc., courtesy of Sony Pictures Entertainment Inc.

As novel as this ability might seem, though, this is something we all possess, at least metaphorically, a capacity we know as intuition. It’s also something that most of us don’t recognize (or that we might even dismiss), because it doesn’t seem logical or rational. However, as the experience of Eddie and Venom reveals, it’s an attribute that can prove highly beneficial, especially when subjected to difficult circumstances. It can literally serve as a life-saver, as the protagonist discovers repeatedly. And that’s a lesson we should take to heart.

This unusual fusion also illustrates what’s possible when we take stock of abilities we don’t realize we possess. As Eddie grows more comfortable with his cohabitation, he discovers traits and skills that allow him to perform amazing feats, including many that work to his own and others’ benefit. Indeed, as this film illustrates, we can learn a lot from things that may initially seem “alien” to us. But, just because they’re strange, that doesn’t mean we should summarily dismiss them without examining them first.

Venom, the alien alter-ego of a human host, struggles to learn the ways of living on Earth and doing good deeds in the new action-adventure superhero saga, “Venom.” Photo © CTMG, Inc., courtesy of Sony Pictures Entertainment Inc.

Admittedly, “Venom” is not a great superhero film, but it’s certainly not the awful mess that many critics have unfairly made it out to be. With ample wit akin to a lite version of the “Deadpool” series, this premiere offering in this franchise entertains in a fun, escapist way, even if its writing is not up to snuff and the plot has a plethora of inconsistencies. However, if you don’t take it too seriously, you just might find yourself having an enjoyable time at the show.

While most of us probably don’t have our own inner Venom (at least I don’t think we do), we all nevertheless possess a comparable quality that can provide us with the kinds of valuable insights that this symbiont provides its host. And, when Eddie sincerely listens to the advice, he finds it eminently helpful. We’d be wise to do the same, no matter how outlandish the suggestions may seem. They just might change our lives – and for the better. 

On the Red Carpet This Week

Look for me starting later this week when I begin my slate of screenings at this year’s Chicago International Film Festival, which runs October 10-21 at the AMC River East 21 Theaters. I’m currently scheduled to see nine films, including “Mario” (Switzerland), “Animal” (Argentina), “Transit” (Germany), “An Acceptable Loss” (USA), “The Extraordinary Journey of Celeste Garcia” (Cuba/Germany), “Styx” (Germany/Austria), “Sorry Angel” (France), “Neurotic Quest for Serenity” (Brazil) and “The Trouble With You” (France). And, when I’m not parked in my seat munching on popcorn, look for me on the red carpet. Hope to see you there!

Photo by Trevor Laster.

Copyright © 2018, by Brent Marchant. All rights reserved.