Tuesday, June 20

Madeline Kahn

Someone once described her as a Boticelli cracking a malicious grin.  I regarded her as the high priestess of movie comediennes in the 1970s whose deadpan expressions drove me crazy with laughter and whose voice was truly her best instrument. She was a sensation on Broadway, a multiple Tony nominee, and she admitted she owed her movie career mainly to Mel Brooks with an extra nod to Peter Bogdanovich.  

Like most movie comics, all of her films weren't good.  Like many films of all genres, what looked good on the page doesn't always turn out that way.  But I don't think she ever gave a bad performance and frequently she was the best thing about some of her films.

There are bits and pieces from much of her work that I can recall as soon as she comes into my head.  Some of her characters' names are memorable as well... Trixie Delight, Lili Von Shtupp, Empress Nympho. Some of her work has indeed been just bits and pieces in a movie but it's all that has been needed.  Listen, I adored her and yet I don't think 90-120 minutes of her would necessarily have been a good thing.  She had a schtick that I certainly responded to and she knew how to use it well and then get off the set.

She was born in Boston in 1942 to non-observant Jewish parents. Her father worked in the garment industry and her mother, to whom Madeline was close, could usually be found pounding the streets of New York looking for acting gigs.  The parents were divorced when Madeline was just two and mother and daughter moved to New York City.  It wasn't long before the daughter was acting, too, in school plays.

She earned a drama scholarship to Long Island's Hofstra University but she graduated in 1964 with a degree in speech therapy. There is no question she applied much of what she learned to those glorious voices in her later career.  After graduation she studied singing and made the decision to become an actress.  She once commented that doing something with her degree probably would have been more dignified (she had considered becoming a teacher) but was that whimsy or truth?  It likely took some soul-searching on her part to be a performer, a public person, because she was shy and withdrawn, not at all like the zany characters she usually played.

While in college, she took up opera.  She worked as a singing waitress at a German restaurant and while a great deal of the entertainment was show tunes, there was some occasional opera served up and Kahn determined to master it as best she could.  I always thought she was comically a good opera singer, but am unaware of whether she really cut the mustard.  Was Beverly Sills nervous?

Her first Broadway gig was as a chorus girl but she was soon doing plays and revues. Director Peter Bogdanovich took notice of her and hired her for the role of Ryan O'Neal's controlling, uptight girlfriend, Eunice Burns, in What's Up Doc? (1972), a screwball comedy if there ever was one.  O'Neal and Barbra Streisand were both great but it is Kahn that I always remember when I think of the laughs this movie provided.

On the heels of it came another Bogdanovich-O'Neal funfest, 
Paper Moon (1973).  We will forego the usual chatter on this one because I just did a posting on it, but Kahn did cop her first supporting Oscar nomination (and for a 15-minute part, no less).

Then, lucky lady that she was, she fell in with Mel Brooks who directed her in four films (including the most memorable of all her films), Blazing Saddles (1974).  Who could ever forget Lili Von Shtupp, the saloon singer who joins forces with Gene Wilder to prevent Brooks from doing in the new black sheriff? She was a scream doing her Marlene Dietrich impression from Destry Rides Again (1939).

Her singing of I'm Tired was positively inspired.  When one customer doesn't want to let her be tired and offers her one red rose, she says oh one wed wose.  How wovely.  And she got the sheriff (Cleavon Little) to loosen his tight pants and to prove wumours that the gifts of your people is twoo.

She would get her second Oscar nomination for this memorable performance and cause her director-costar Brooks to say she is one of the most talented people who ever lived.  I mean in stand-up comedy or acting or whatever you want, you can't beat Madeline Kahn.  One interviewer called her a kind of toy person... diminutive, sexy, impish, cute and capable of squirting vinegar in your eye.

A one-two punch was delivered with her performance in Brooks' aggressive comedy sendup of the Frankenstein story, Young Frankenstein (1974).  Funny at every level it opens with Gene Wilder arriving at a train station and spying a young man nearby says pardon me, boy, is this the Transylvania Station?  In another bossy fiance role, Kahn is funny and exasperating as a financier who finds fulfillment in the arms of the monster.

She was nominated for a Tony for a rare dramatic turn in David Rabe's In the Boom Boom Room (1974) and the same year fired by Lucille Ball on Mame (clearly not a bad thing).  They had a difference of opinion on how Kahn should play Agnes Gooch. Kahn could get her dander up, for sure, but did Ball not wanna play ball with a younger, red-haired comedienne?  I loved what Kahn said about Ball... she looks fabulous as Mame... I don't know how they did it. In person she looks like a 103-year old chorus girl but in the movie she looks 35.  Actually she doesn't but the jibe was well-placed and effective. 

She returned to Bogdanovich for the ill-conceived and downright embarrassing At Long Last Love (1975), a tribute, if you will, to 1930s musicals.  If you want to see Bogdanovich's paramour at the time, Cybill Shepherd, and Burt Reynolds sing and dance, this is the movie for you.

She joined two of her Frankenstein costars, Gene Wilder and Marty Feldman, for one that Wilder also directed, The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes' Smarter Brother (1975). The younger brother tries to solve an important case in an effort to acquire some of his own glory and is assisted by an odd detective and an actress who may actually be dead.

It was back to Brooks for the very funny High Anxiety (1977), ostensibly about shenanigans at a mental institution but actually it's an homage to all things Hitchcock.  Many pieces of the portly director's most famous films are imaginatively woven into Brooks' delightful film.

If High Anxiety is an homage to Hitchcock, then The Cheap Detective (1978) is one to Humphrey Bogart's film noirs and that's what makes it work for me... plus the dazzling cast.  While clearly not in the mold of her best comedies, I had a smile on my face the whole time.

In 1978 she was nominated for a Tony for her performance in On the Twentieth Century, despite the fact that she left the show after a mere nine weeks due to damage to her vocal chords.

History of the World, Part 1 (1981) is probably only for diehard Brooks' fans as he seems unchained in this one.  I regarded it as a vulgar homage to all those biblical/Roman sand and sandal epics that was, overall, not well-regarded.

Maybe Kahn was a bit put off by its lack of critical or box office success as well because she turned not only to television but to her own series.  Unfortunately, Oh, Madeline (1983) was never a success and was canceled after one season.

She vamped it up some in the Clint Eastwood-Burt Reynolds crime comedy, City Heat (1984), but it was as uncomfortable and out-of-sorts as the real-life relationship of its two stars.  Cue (1985), taking a clue from a real board game, is one of those big old house (comedy) thrillers with Kahn and the rest of the suspects at the top of their form. Regrettably, I don't think many folks saw it.

She still worked on the stage when opportunities presented themselves and the lady was nominated for another Tony in 1989 for her performance in the Judy Holliday classic, Born Yesterday. This was certainly a role Kahn was destined to play.  

Alan Alda directed and starred in Betsy's Wedding (1990) as Molly Ringwald's father with Kahn as the mother.  If it reminds one a little of Father of the Bride, it's purely intentional.  It suffered from a case of the cutes but Kahn, as always, brightened up the piece.

She finally won her Tony for her performance in The Sisters Rosensweig in 1993.  In 1995 she appeared in a dramatic role in Oliver Stone's Nixon (1995) as loudmouthed Washington hostess Martha Mitchell.

The remainder of her work was rather uninspired.  It might be that she was already getting sick, feeling the wear and tear of cancer. She did manage to marry her longtime companion two months before she died of ovarian cancer in 1999 in New York. She was just 57 years old.

I will always be grateful to the siwy wabbit for all the laughs.  It's been said that Mel Brooks stuffed hankerchiefs in the mouths of his crew when Kahn was doing a scene for fear their laughter would ruin a scene.  Now that's a tribute to a great comic.

Next posting:
Movie review

1 comment:

  1. I can't even look at the name Lili von Shtupp without laughing!
    (Keith C)