Thursday, April 18, 2019

Gilda Radner: A Life Cut Short By Bad Medicine

With the 2018 documentary Love, Gilda by Lisa D'Apolito out on various channels, there's been a resurgence in interest in the famous comedienne.  But I've always been a tad obsessed.  For those who are too young to remember, Gilda was a member of the original cast of Saturday Night Live from 1975-1980 (the show's most groundbreaking & drugged out years) alongside John Belushi, Jane Curtin, Dan Aykroyd, Garrett Morris, Laraine Newman & Bill Murray.  She quickly became the show's breakout female star alongside Chevy Chase, who is now known mostly as a notorious asshole.

Gilda was beloved by everyone who knew her, including Chase, who cites her & Aykroyd as "the only talented people to come out of SNL" presumably besides himself.  Ouch.  This is a man who thinks Will Ferrell & Tina Fey are unfunny hacks, so that's a huge compliment coming from him.  Indeed, she was a fan favorite as well & was even offered her own variety show by the network execs at one point.  And she won an Emmy for her work on SNL in the '70s.  Still, she's not a household name today the way many of her contemporaries are which is a crime considering what a multi-talented trailblazer she was.

Gilda brought us lovable, hilarious characters like the brash Roseanne Rosannadanna, hard-of-hearing Emily Litella, the extremely Jewish Rhonda Weiss & nerdy Lisa Loopner, setting the stage for all future female SNL performers who would follow.  (I specify "female" because in Gilda's time, women were not treated with respect by many men in the cast.  John Belushi, for instance, actively tried to sabotage skits involving women & outright refused to participate in sketches written by female writers, claiming "women just aren't funny.")  What we take for granted today--a diverse cast of multi-ethnic performers of all different genders & backgrounds--was definitely NOT the norm in 1975 when the show premiered or for quite a while afterward.

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After SNL, Gilda had her own brief one-woman show on Broadway & starred in 3 relatively bad movies with hubby Gene Wilder before being diagnosed with Stage IV ovarian cancer in her late 30s.  She wrote a heroic & moving book about her cancer struggle called "It's Always Something" which everyone who cares about their health (particularly women) should read.  Gilda struggled to get doctors to take her seriously even as she knew something was very wrong, which is a common experience for many of us when dealing with the medical profession. But more on that later.

The Love, Gilda documentary was touching but pretty surface-level, skimming over uncomfortable issues like Gilda's relationship with her mother, who fed her Dexedrine at age 10 to lose weight, & barely touching on her eating disorder or her whirlwind relationships with numerous men.  (Gilda had a lot of boyfriends, y'all).  One is also left to wonder whether & how often she used drugs with her castmates or when partying at clubs like Studio 54.  I can find no documented proof of her so much as smoking a joint, but I think it's safe to assume she at least dabbled during her manic days of performing with some of comedy's biggest heads in the '70s.  She even lived with John & Judy Belushi for a while so it's likely that drugs made an appearance.

Even so, she clearly didn't let it become a problem the way castmates Laraine Newman or Belushi did.  (Newman snorted heroin to stay stick-thin while Belushi was a poly-substance abuser who died of a cocaine/heroin overdose in 1982).  The hectic pace of doing a weekly show required an immense focus & energy that lead most of the original cast to turn to substances to perform, party after the show, or a combination of both.  Belushi once snorted actual cocaine on live TV while dressed as Beethoven in a skit, with the excuse of "Well I'm not going to sniff FAKE coke!"

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At Studio 54...looking a bit off-kilter ;)

Having been overweight as a child, Gilda's biggest vice was always junk food.  Lots of it.  To stay thin she developed a habit of binging & purging which didn't even have a name in those days.  Her weight ping-ponged from 160 down to a scary 93 lbs at various times through her life.  It's said that there's a "god-like feeling of cleanliness" that follows a large binge & purge, though I don't recommend anyone try it to find out.  Being emetophobic myself the idea terrifies me on principle alone, but the health risks of bulimia are potentially worse than those of anorexia--long considered the most deadly of all mental illnesses.  She did several food-joke skits on SNL over the years which are painful to watch now in hindsight.

Friend & castmate Laraine Newman tells of hanging out at Gilda's house and snorting heroin while Gilda binged on ice cream & went to puke, exclaiming "I'm so full I can't hear."  Neither judged the other for her illnesses or vices which is pretty cool.  Gilda checked herself into a hospital in 1978 & was able to mostly get her problem under control, thankfully.  She always stayed on the low end of a healthy body weight even into her mid-30s but seemed to improve upon meeting her husband Gene.

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Gilda at her thinnest in '78 
Ahh yes, who can forget the lovely pairing of Gene Wilder & Gilda Radner.  Two neurotic stars adored for their kooky-but-lovable personas & crazy hair.  Apparently Gilda was too needy & clingy at first, which scared him right off.  They broke up & got back together and eventually married after starring in 2 forgettable movies together.  Radner badly wanted a baby.  After a couple miscarriages, they tried in vitro fertilization only to have that fail too.  It was after the 3rd flop of a movie, Haunted Honeymoon, that Gilda developed vague but persistent symptoms that would eventually lead to her cancer diagnosis.

One major detail that's rarely discussed beyond a casual mention is the fact that Gilda had an illegal abortion as a teen, which is why she was infertile to begin with.  I will spare you the pro-choice rhetoric but here is a real-life example of what happens when this common medical procedure is not legally available to women who seek it.  Her life course could've gone very differently if not for that one event.  IVF that doesn't result in a pregnancy has been linked to an increased risk for several types of cancer including the ovarian cancer that killed Gilda.  A 1/3rd increased risk is nothing to sneeze at.  Her cancer symptoms set in immediately after her IVF treatments too.  Even if the IVF played no role in her cancer, nobody deserves to be rendered infertile by a back-alley procedure done in desperation.

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Gilda's illegal abortion rendered her infertile

However, the biggest topic the documentary skims over is Gilda's fight to be taken seriously by doctors for nearly a year after becoming ill.  She's repeatedly patted on the head & sent home with instructions to "relax" and try not to worry so much, as if her symptoms are nothing more than the product of a hysterical female mind.  Cancer is a time-sensitive disease and if they'd have done imaging tests as soon as she complained of symptoms, perhaps they could've saved her life.  Or at least prolonged it significantly.  Instead it wasn't found until Stage IV.  Ovarian cancer is the most deadly gynecologic cancer & the symptoms are very vague:  bloating, fatigue, brain fog, pelvic pain, constipation & leg cramping; which means it's often not discovered until late in the disease.  BUT when a patient is telling you they're in too much pain to walk or too tired to get out of bed, you need to take that seriously & investigate.  Especially if there's a family history of cancer.  Here's what Rolling Stone said about Gilda's family history of cancer in 1989:

"Her grandmother died of stomach cancer shortly before Gilda’s birth. When she was twelve, her father, the prosperous owner of a Detroit hotel, developed brain cancer and died two years later. Then the disease claimed her aunt. Her mother was stricken much later with breast cancer, although she recovered. But it was her father, not her mother, to whom Gilda was closest. His lugubrious, unfathomable death haunted her adulthood. Although she occasionally suspected she had outwitted cancer — by talent, by stardom, by goodness, by hilarity — her confidence was always temporary.
“I’ve been having cancer premonitions since I was twelve,” she said."
That's 4 close family members with cancer.  What wasn't known at the time is that Gilda likely carried the mutation of the BRCA gene that is responsible for the higher rate of ovarian & breast cancers in Ashkenazi Jewish women.  This mutation wouldn't be discovered for another few decades, so nothing could be done about that.  But her instincts were on point.  Sometimes "family curses" are actually the manifestation of real medical phenomena arising from genetics.  The doctors were wrong, and she paid for it with her life.

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With one of the creators of The Wellness Community cancer support group

Why is this important now?  Because Gilda's poor treatment--both the illegal abortion & patronizing doctors who refused to take her seriously--is a real & present threat to women today.  I had a friend in a similar position; brushed off by doctors 3 times before a 22-cm ovarian tumor was discovered (thankfully it wasn't malignant but we didn't find that out until several weeks AFTER the surgery--and she lost her ovary in the process).  This is not uncommon, and I wish Love, Gilda would've included more about this aspect of her journey since it was such a big part of why she didn't survive.  There was also a "computer error" that prevented doctors from realizing her cancer had spread to her lung & brain near the end of her life.  All they could say was "Oh shit."  No apology.  No nothing.  She was so disgusted she decided to forego all conventional treatment & spend her last days on a macrobiotic diet at home.  I don't blame her one bit.  They'd failed her at every step of the process.  But Gilda was determined not to die until the very end.  And even that end was a horrific violation of her bodily autonomy. 

Gilda Radner passed away at the tragically young age of 42; or the "middle of the middle of my life" as she wrote in her autobiography.  She died after being sedated against her will, fearing she'd never wake up if they put her under.  Again, she was right but ignored by the "professionals".  She went kicking & screaming on the gurney for some tests, begging Gene to not let them sedate her for fear she would die.  Her last conscious moments were spent in abject terror.

All I could think about during my friend's ordeal was Gilda's story & how horrifically it ended.  That book opened my eyes to the ways the medical establishment underestimates women's pain & chalks serious problems up to psychosomatic symptoms or wastebasket diagnoses like "Irritable Bowel Syndrome" or "Chronic Fatigue".  My own endometriosis took 11 years to be diagnosed & I still fight to get adequate pain management for it.  We've got to do better, both about not downplaying our symptoms & insisting that doctors take us seriously.  Our lives depend on it.  Gilda's talented co-star & friend Madeline Kahn (another Jewish woman) died of the same disease, advanced ovarian cancer, in 1999...10 years after Gilda.  She was only 57.

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Gilda with Madeline Kahn: another ovarian cancer victim

After Gilda's death, Gene Wilder finished her book & opened several 'Gilda's Club' cancer centers around the country in 1995.  He battled lymphoma himself in 1999 & survived with the support of his 4th wife Karen, living to the ripe old age of 83 and finally succumbing to Alzheimer's disease in 2016.  Gene & Gilda were only married for 5 years but their love story endures, largely because of the hell they went through together.  "In sickness and in health" is a trying vow to live up to, especially when your partner is already a bit needy & neurotic.  But Gene did so until the very end, even though he admittedly lost his temper at times.  Who wouldn't though?  Cancer is such an unfair disease that seems to strike the nicest people at the worst times.  Fuck cancer.

We miss you, Gilda.


O.J. Simpson -- the second athlete to host "Saturday Night Live" -- posing with Radner and Curtin in 1978 during the show's third season.

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““Jane Curtin and Gilda Radner, c. late-1980′s
” ”

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