Gilda Radner: It's Always Something, an ABC movie about the life of the late star of Saturday Night Live, is missing only one thing: any sense of what it was that made Radner such an extraordinary performer.
This is Gilda without the art, and that's a fatal flaw - because she was a comic artist in the same splendid sense as Sid Caesar, Imogene Coca, Danny Kaye or Carol Burnett. She could create a character from the inside out, inhabit that character for the length of a sketch and make you believe in that creation with all your laughter and heart.
Minus that, what we have is a made-for-TV melodrama about Radner's troubled life and sad death from ovarian cancer at age 42. Though it is based on her best-selling autobiography, this ultimately is a film that has more to do with a People magazine knowledge of Radner's existence as a celebrity than with any of the deeper truths that might have been suggested by her journey through life.
There is almost no texture to this production, and it starts with a script crudely divided into three acts. There's Gilda as a fat and unhappy child who finds her only respite with her father, Gilda as a bulimic and unhappy adult who finds her only joy on stage, Gilda as a frightened but courageous cancer victim near the end of her life, who finally finds some happiness with husband Gene Wilder and a support group of other people living with cancer. Radner deserves better.
Nearly as devoid of substance is the performance of Jami Gertz (Ali McBeal), who has learned to mimic Radner's body language and vocal inflection, but seems clueless as to the energy and comic vision that were articulated through body and voice.
Before the film, ABC will air a one-hour special titled Gilda Radner's Greatest Moments. It's a clip-and-interview job, not a full-blown biography. But if you're hoping for any sense of what made such Radner characters as Lisa Loopner, Baba Wawa, Emily Litella or Roseanne Rosannadanna shine, I say watch the special, not the film. At least with the clips, you might get a flicker of her greatness.
Gilda Radner: It's Always Something.
When: Tonight at 9
Where: WMAR (Channel 2)
In brief: Gilda, with the tears, but without the art