Jewish Film Fest Opens with Love, Gilda

I hate the Castro Theatre’s balcony! It’s dark and you must feel your way through stairs and ramps to find an empty seat. And once you find one, the rows are so narrow it’s almost impossible to get to it. And when you finally sit down, there’s little room for your legs. The seats lack cup holders. The screen is so low and far away that you feel like you’re watching the TV in a neighbor’s basement.

And yet, as my wife and I entered the Castro for the opening night screening of this year’s San Francisco Jewish Film Festival, we were told to go directly to the balcony (or as I prefer to call it, steerage). I suspect that most of the downstairs section was reserved for richer or more important people. This is a problem with many big nights at major film festivals.

The program, scheduled to start at 6:30, got going only ten minutes late. For a big event at the Castro, that’s very good. And it started well, with a selection of funny trailers from past Jewish Film Festivals, ending, of course, with this year’s trailer.

This year’s trailer:

Then, as tradition requires, we had to sit through two boring speeches. The first thanked all of the major donors. The second praised the festival itself. I’ve sat through worse opening night speeches.

The movie, Love, Gilda, started at 7:13 – which, comparatively, is reasonably punctual. Better yet, this documentary was worth the wait. It was almost worth sitting in those awful balcony seats.

You will laugh a lot in this documentary on comedian Gilda Radner. The clips, mostly from the early seasons of Saturday Night Live, are abundant and hilarious. It also provides a sense of the hard but exhilarating work of creating those laughs. And then there’s the sad, sometimes inspiring, and eventually tragic story of the genius who created all that comedy. Director Lisa D’Apolito uses Radner’s own words (mostly) to tell us about Radner’s troubled life, including her second and final marriage with Gene Wilder and her terminal cancer.

I give the film an A.

Why does this belong in a Jewish film festival? Although it’s never mentioned in the film, Radner was Jewish by birth.

After the screening, D’Apolito came onstage along with editor Anne Alvergue, Jordan Walker-Pearlman (Gene Wilder’s nephew), and Radner’s SNL co-star, Laraine Newman. Some highlights, edited for clarity and length:

  • D’Apolito on getting the project going: It was different from anything I ever did before. Raising money is the hardest part; a real learning experience. I asked Michael Radner [Gilda’s brother]. He had dozens of boxes. And tapes with 32 hours of Gilda telling her life story.
  • On getting people to do interviews: Each interview brought another, and another.
  • Newman on Saturday Night Live founder Lorne Michaels: Lorne was an absolute, unequivocal supporter of women’s humor.
  • Walker-Pearlman on the film: Gilda got her voice back. It was submerged for a very long time. It was partly my responsibility and partly Gene’s responsibility. It was too painful. When you bury a memory that deeply, you don’t realize how deeply you buried it.
  • Reaching new generations: I hope the film reaches younger people. We showed the film to young people who didn’t know who she was. They loved her.
  • About the archival material: There’s
    a lot of stuff.
    She wrote a screenplay and these wonderfully funny short stories. A good place for her things would be the National Comedy Center in Jamestown.
  • SNL’s famous drug use: Gilda didn’t use drugs. That wasn’t part of her story. We wanted everything from her point of view.

This was the only San Francisco Jewish Film Festival screening. The film will open in Bay Area theaters on September 21.