Madeline Kahn was as close as you come to a universally loved performer, a unique comic one-off, like Beatrice Lillie, and her early death in 1999 brought forth a lot of collective mourning, not only for what was lost, but for what might have been. After starting off strongly in several films for Peter Bogdanovich and Mel Brooks, Kahn faltered with a series of disasters that derailed what should have been a major career. These weren’t any ordinary bad films, but notorious flops like Bogdanovich’s you-have-to-see-it-to-believe-it At Long Last Love (1975) and atrocities like Slapstick (Of Another Kind) (1982) with Jerry Lewis. As a little kid, I can remember sneaking downstairs past my bedtime to watch her television sitcom, Oh Madeline, which lasted only a season; I must have been drawn to it because I had seen her singing with Grover on Sesame Street. She never gave less than her best, but her roles got smaller in films as she got older. Kahn turns up very briefly, and delightfully, as Martha Mitchell in Oliver Stone’s Nixon (1995), but her bad luck with larger roles remained consistent; what can anyone do with a film as abjectly awful as Nora Ephron’s Mixed Nuts (1994)? Finally, before her death, she landed on a successful TV show with laidback Bill Cosby in which she played “the eccentric neighbor,” as if she was just a thinner version of Edie McClurg.
Kahn had more success on stage, winning a Tony for her archetypal Jewish American Princess of a certain age in Wendy Wasserstein’s The Sisters Rosensweig, but she seems to have had some personal issues that held her back even in the theater. Dixie Carter, who did comic revue work with Kahn in the late sixties, remembered her as “an odd person,” and Hal Prince was unusually uncharitable when he recalled directing her in On The Twentieth Century with Kevin Kline in the late seventies; she had trouble in rehearsals, then pulled together a brilliant performance on opening night. When the ecstatic Prince came backstage to see her, Kahn said, “I hope you don’t expect me to do that every night!” (she was later replaced by her understudy). A friend of mine told me about how his boss asked him to call Kahn and invite her to a party around the time of Twentieth Century; for a solid twenty minutes, she kept him engrossed with her antic indecision. “I don’t know, should I go to this party? If I did go, I could talk to what’s her name…but I don’t know what I should wear…if I was to go…do you think I should go to this party? If I did go…well, I really don’t know if I should…”
Such neuroticism suited the seventies, as did her deceptively casual comic timing; her trick was to pull back from us suddenly, going against the grain of a laugh line by retreating into glacial, nasal-voiced solipsism, then do some small, unexpected bit of physical or vocal business. Take her famous little 20-second aria of anger in Clue (1985); her face a hypnotized blank beneath her black wig, she says, “I…hated…her,” (making each word into a staccato jab), “so...much,” (she sings these words up like the soprano she was). Her eyes close slightly, as if she’s communing with this incandescent rage, and she stutters, “it…it…the feeling,” (like she’s trying to locate her emotion for a therapist). “Flames!” she cries, decisively, as if she’s found it, finally. “Flames!” she sings, “on the side of my face,” (now she might be explaining this to a policeman), “heaving,” (she’s lost it again), “breathless,” (where is it?), “heaving breaths…” and she trails off. At her best, she gave us little shocks of pleasure moment by moment, even in parodies so lowbrow that they make her films with Mel Brooks look like Congreve or Coward.
1. What’s Up, Doc? (1972): “Howard! Howard Bannister!” Kahn cries, as the ultimate nag in her film debut, Bogdanovich’s tribute to thirties screwball comedy. Wearing white gloves, toothpaste colored dresses and a large red wig that looks like some mutant from the Patty Duke show, Kahn makes her whiny fiancée Eunice Burns into a recognizable and even likable person, all the while getting laughs in the most unlikely places. She can score a giggle just by rolling her eyes slightly, or by emphasizing a consonant at the end of a word, and it’s this subtle attention to detail that allows Kahn freedom to create on her own even when her material is crass or empty. She does her highly idiosyncratic bare minimum in the midst of the film’s raucous, cartoonish humor, and this gives her an elegance and a dignity that transcend everything else around her, even the ineptitude of her main scene partner, Ryan O’Neal.
2. Paper Moon (1973): Performing in some kind of carnival show called “Harem Slave,” it’s clear from the moment we see Kahn’s Miss Trixie Delight jiggling into view that she’s the complete opposite of Eunice Burns, for Trixie is a calculating, overly made-up, knocked-around five dollar hooker who puts on an exaggerated Southern accent to act the lady for a sucker (Ryan O’Neal again). Miss Trixie would like to forget about her checkered past, but it’s the Depression, times are tough and she’s willing to do anything to survive. In her big scene, where she levels with wise-ass kid Tatum O’Neal, Kahn slowly starts to blur Miss Trixie’s breathless affectations until we see the levels of desperation, bitterness and romantic disappointment that lay underneath her lacquered surface. It’s a classic “Oscar clip” monologue, and Kahn was indeed nominated for supporting actress (only to lose to Tatum, who’s really the film’s co-lead). She knows this scene is a large opportunity, but she doesn’t milk it; she stays true to the character, the real, strange person who is always alive somewhere even in Kahn’s most outrageous inventions.
3. Blazing Saddles (1974): This Mel Brooks western spoof is crude, scattershot, “offensive,” and not particularly funny most of the time, but Kahn’s Lily Von Shtupp is a hilarious, sexy parody of Marlene Dietrich. Give Brooks credit for her song, “I’m Tired,” which has lines like, “They start with Byron and Shelley and jump on your belly and bust your balloon!” You can see how conscious and precise a performer Kahn is because she does the random Dietrich growls then drops the Marlene mask and looks around, as if to say, “I’m sort of enjoying this nonsense, are you?” Before dropping into a chair to have a quick doze, she shouts, “Goddammit, I’m exhausted!” in a hoarse Borscht Belt voice, which alternates amusingly with her impassive German chanteuse warbling. “I’ve been with thousands of men,” she claims, “again and again…coming and going and going and coming…and always too soon! Right, girls?” she asks (what girls are in Lily’s audience?!). In this film, spoof became Kahn’s métier, and funny as she is within its strictures, it limited her later opportunities.
4. Young Frankenstein (1974): In what is indisputably Brooks’ funniest and most focused film, Kahn doesn’t have much screen time as another prickly fiancée, but she makes the most of it. In her second scene, wearing a large white turban and white fox furs, Kahn reacts to Marty Feldman’s coarse come-ons with her own bizarre brand of libidinal inwardness; she finds the exact way to play this sketch material, and of course it was her idea to start singing, “Ah, Sweet Mystery of Life,” when she finds sexual bliss in the monster’s arms. When he leaves her, she drops her ’30s glamour girl act and brays, “Yah bettah keep yer mouth shut!” in the same Borscht Belt voice that overcame her Lily Von Shtupp. Kahn seems to be uninhibited and wild here, but her effects are carefully planned, and it’s the distance between these crazy effects and her technique that makes Kahn so exciting to watch.
5. Judy Berlin (1999): For her final movie, Eric Mendelsohn’s earnest portrait of a few lonely people in a Long Island town, Kahn opens up for the first and regrettably the last time and lets us see the purest feelings of fear, confusion and melancholy. As a housewife who has too much time on her hands and some unspecified mental problems, she enriches the basic material, as she always did, but Kahn is clearly personalizing her emotions here because she knows this is her last chance. She reveals all the depths that lay beneath her comic control until we see that this woman who made us laugh actually has a tragic face, a beautiful face, and suddenly we realize that she was our Beatrice Lillie, but she might have been a Jeanne Moreau, too. At the end, Kahn stands in the half-light of a solar eclipse and looks at her husband (Bob Dishy) with all kinds of hurt flickering behind her eyes. It feels like she’s accusing him of something, and it’s hard not to feel that Kahn is also accusing us of not fully appreciating her until it was too late. She takes stock of her life all through this movie and then dares to angrily stare her own death in the face. Kahn wants to leave us with a wound, and for those of us who loved her as a child, as I did, that wound is not likely to heal.
House contributor Dan Callahan’s writing has appeared in Slant Magazine, Bright Lights Film Journal and Senses of Cinema, among other publications.