"Gilda Live" ended just as I was beginning to warm up to it. For the sake of theatergoers, I hope the original Broadway revue from which the film was compiled, "Gilda Radner -- Live From New York," was a little more plentiful. The fade-out seemed as if it should have been the first-act curtain. It's a shame, because the early going is strewn with duds and it takes a while for Radner's innate sweetness and zaniness to break through.
Radner could possibly emerge as the legitimate successor to Lucille Ball and Carol Burnett. She's already revealed a flair for characterization and caricature, although this showcase neglects to work in Baba Wawa -- which is unfortunate, since Don Novello is part of the troupe and his Father Guido Sarducci might hve made a swell subject for her inimitable interviewing style.
The rest of Radner's "Saturday Night Live" menagerie is duly trotted out. Adolescent Judy Miller fantasizes in her bedroom. Twittery Emily Litella substitute teaches in Beford Stuyvesant (her use of eraser and chalk stand out in Radner's repertoire of physical gags). Vulgar Roseanne Roseannadanna lectures in place of Geraldo Rivera at the Columbia School of Journalism.In addition, celebrities like Mick Jagger and Nadia Comaneci get the business for alleged affectations.
Novello's low-key, sophisticated presentations (the best is a discourse of how "paying for our sins" will actually work in the afterlife) break up Radner's lowbrow exertions, which sustain strenuous moods rather more effectively than humorous ones. I'm not sure what the comparative exposure would turn out to be if one clocked Novello's screen time and then Radner's. But his three routines seem to count for more.
Novello was also responsible for the entertaining literary hoax "The Lazlo Letters." As the hip divine, supposedly a gossip columinst for the Vatican newspaper, Novello is so much more consistent than Radner that people may come out of the show with a higher opinion of his work. Nevertheless, it's Radner who is clearly the natural clown and the potentially versatile comic star. While she appears to require a good deal more seasoning and judgment, I don't think anyone attracted to her in the first place will resent indulging some professional growing pains.
The opening number, a smugly lewd ditty called "Let's Talk Dirty to the Animals," is a facetious pain.I suspect the influence of Michael O'Donoghue, whose name looms ominously among the writing staff, behind this put-down of harmlessly cornball and now rather obscure novelty items including the "Talk to the Animals" song from "Dr. Dolittle" and the curtain-raisers in many a musical with a rustic setting.
The smutty material often sounds so gratuitous that perhaps three minutes of judicious cutting would make a PG version of the unexpurgated, R-rated show. Both parents and theater owners might welcome the choice when juvenile favorites like Gilda happen to be in the limelight.
Broadway's Winter Garden seems a lot of house for the solo skits that evidently dominated "Gilda Live." Although director Mike Nichols is fairly astute about using shots of audience reactions (at four different performances), there was a far more intimate and moving sense of performer and spectators in the Richard Pryor concert film. Of course, Pryor also sustained a powerfully revealing comic monologue, arguably the greatest single performance on the American screen in 1979, although perhaps too specialized and authentic to lend itself to Academy Award recognition.
The closest Radner comes to the sort of character revelation achieved by Pryor (and sometimes by Dan Aykroyd on "Saturday Night Live") is in her masquerade as Lisa Loopner, a shrill, officious schoolgirl who succumbs to tears during her own tormented piano solo on "The Way We Were." The relentless, plunky arrangement persumably devised by Paul Shaffer and neatly executed by Radner, is a witty form of provocation. Poor Lisa spends so much time lingering over every sorrowful note that it's easy to believe she'd break down from the cumulative effect of her maudlin adagio.
The Loopner recital achieves a savory fusion of the satirical and the sincerely sappy. One hopes that Radner and her brain trust will generate amusement at this level a little more often in the future.
Radner's vocalizing on the closing song is also sweetly evocative, although the lyrics leave one baffled about the iintentions of the songwriters. It appears that the impulse to compose a conventional, satisfying romantic ballad -- the irresistible tendency of the melody -- was slightly detoured by the fear of sounding soft. As a result, the words have an off-color smudge that seems peculiarly inappropriate. Still, Radner's singing implies an honest romantic tenderness, so it might be pleasant to enlarge on her singing opportunities the next time around.
For all their shortcomings, it's good to see the increase in concert films like this, the Pryor performance and the Lily Tomlin and Robin Williams vehicles, which didn't play theatrically but made fascinating viewing on HBO. Years ago I would have given a lot to see similar documents of Mort Sahl, Lenny Bruce and Nichols and May on the stage.