If you’re reading this blog you no doubt hold the late Madeline Kahn (1942-1999) high in your esteem already; but now that I look at her career in its totality I am fairly agog. Like most, I’ve associated her with a few key dazzling, zany performances of the middle ’70s. The truer picture is that she actually built a voluminous canon of characteristic work over three decades. Unlike many (the majority) in show business, she seems to have been able to keep a tight rein on her projects; the projects weren’t all critical or box office successes, but looked at as a set, they all make coherent sense for HER. Her career put her at the center of the stage and screen comedy (and musical comedy) universe; she worked with EVERYBODY and shone no matter what company she was in.
Kahn went to Hofstra, where one of her friends and fellow students was Charles Ludlam. One of her earliest gigs sounds so similar to the career beginnings of many of the vaudeville performers I’ve written about (Sophie Tucker springs to mind): she sang opera selections at a Bavarian restaurant in the Hudson Valley. In the mid ’60s she sang in New York cabarets and performed in off-Broadway revues and musicals. In 1968 she performed in a special performance of Candide for Leonard Bernstein’s 50th birthday. Leonard Silliman’s New Faces of 1968 began to put her on the public’s radar. (The show also featured Robert Klein, with whom she was to perform on stage and screen many times thereafter). This was followed by Richard Rodgers’ Two by Two, which ran 1970-71.
I used to marvel about Kahn’s impressively confident, fully formed comic performance as Ryan O’Neal’s controlling fiancé Eunice in her first feature What’s Up, Doc (1972) as though it were somehow supernatural, but looking at the stage experience, I now realize she had plenty to put the wind in her sails. She had been playing to devoted New York audiences for years by that point. She knew how to be boldly funny, and in Peter Bogdanovich’s neo-screwball comedy she had the perfect vehicle in which to do her thing. Bogdanovich cast her as an equally funny, though more sympathetic cooch dancer in Paper Moon (1973), which earned her an Oscar nomination. She then returned to Broadway to play a go-go dancer in David Rabe’s drama In the Boom Boom Room, with Robert Loggia and Charles Durning, for which she was nominated for a Tony.
Kahn was cast in the 1974 movie Mame, but was fired by star Lucille Ball, no doubt for upstaging the headliner. It was all to the good. Mame (this version anyway) was a turkey, and being fired allowed Kahn to do her show-stopping performance of “I’m Tired” as Lili Von Shtupp, a sort of Jewish Marlene Dietrich in Mel Brooks‘ Blazing Saddles (1974), a highlight of the movie and of Kahn’s career. She was now in the Brooks stock company as well as Bogdanovich’s. That same year she was Gene Wilder’s frigid fiance in Young Frankenstein (1974) — man what a year. In 1975 Bogdanovich cast her in his old school musical At Long Last Love with Burt Reynolds and Cybil Shepherd, a critical and box office flop, but not the worst gamble on her part, given the director’s past track record. This was followed to a return to form in Gene Wilder’s The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes’s Smarter Brother (1975).
In 1976 Kahn performed in sketches on two tv variety shows with legendary casts, The Carol Burnett Show and Saturday Night Live. That year she also starred in Won Ton Ton: The Dog That Saved Hollywood, a comedy about the Rin Tin Tin craze that has about a hundred legendary Hollywood stars in it. The film was panned, but Kahn was singled out for praise. This was followed by Brooks’s Hitchcock parody High Anxiety (1977), in which she spoofed a Hitchcock blonde, and then Neil Simon’s private eye parody The Cheap Detective (1978). She then returned to Broadway in early 1978, for the original production of the musical version of the screwball classic On the Twentieth Century with Imogene Coca and John Cullum, which played for over a year (though Kahn left the show early in the run). In 1979, she took a cameo in The Muppet Movie, another all-star hit.
I am very interested in the next stretch of Kahn’s career. At the time, it seemed (to this observer) that she (along with the rest of the Brooks company and their aesthetic) had ceased to be “hot”. The new blood were the SNL alum and Zucker-Abrahams-Zucker. Kahn was in a series of films that for the most part fared poorly by comparison by just about every measure. But in retrospect, almost all of them are interesting failures, all of which look good on paper. They all associated her with some of the top comedy writers, directors and performers, and they’re all crazy spoofs or satires or similar attempts at smart comedy. But most of them simply misfired. (And a couple of them were successes I hasten to point out, so don’t get all huffy). They include:
Simon (1980) by Woody Allen’s frequent writing partner Marshall Brickman, about a man (Alan Arkin) who is brainwashed to think he is an alien. Cast also includes Austin Pendleton, Wallace Shawn, Max Wright, Fred Gwynne, Adolph Green, Ann Risley, Dick Cavett and the voice of Louise Lasser.
Mel Brooks‘ History of the World, Part One (1981)
An adaptation of Kurt Vonnegut’s Slapstick of Another Kind (1982) which paired her with Jerry Lewis as brother and sister space aliens. With a cast that also includes Marty Feldman, John Abbott, JIm Backus, Sam Fuller (yes, the film director), Merv Griffin, and Pat Morita
Yellowbeard (1983), the pirate parody written by and starring Monty Python’s Graham Chapman, with Eric Idle, John Cleese, Marty Feldman, Peter Boyle, Cheech and Chong, James Mason, Kenneth Mars, Spike Milligan et al.
Clue (1985) with Eileen Brennan, Tim Curry, Christopher Lloyd, Michael McKean, Martin Mull, and Leslie Ann Warren
There were also a couple of obscure cinematic adaptations of off-Broadway plays in there: Happy Birthday Gemini (1980) and Scrambled Feet (1983).
Over and around this she tried her luck with television. She was on two sitcoms in the ’80s, her own Oh, Madeline! (1983-84 — her old school chum Charles Ludlam guested on the show shortly before his death of AIDS), and Mr. President (1987-88), a Fox show on which George C. Scott played the President of the United States. Neither of these shows lasted very long. For me, speaking personally, a low point for Kahn was her appearance at the Comic Relief televised all star charity concert in 1986. On a bill with all the top comedians in the nation, she trotted out “I’m Tired” with a full set and cast. The stagehands must have hated her. I’m sure somebody thought “This is surefire, can’t miss material!” But it was a dozen years old — it made her seem far less vital than the people on the bill around her. “I’m tired,” indeed.
At this stage, she returned to Broadway for a 1989 revival of the Garson Kanin classic Born Yesterday (in the Judy Holiday part — very good casting!) It ran six months.
In the ’90s, the pace and scale of everything seems to slow down. She was in Alan Alda’s 1990 comedy Betsy’s Wedding with Alda, Molly Ringwald, Ally Sheedy, Joey Bishop, Catherine O’Hara, Joe Pesci, Anthony Lapaglia, and Burt Young. She then starred in the original Broadway production of Wendy Wasserstein’s The Sister’s Rosenzweig (1993), winning a Tony Award for Best Actress. Then came Nora Ephron’s movie Mixed Nuts (1994) which put her in the company of Steve Martin, Adam Sandler, Rob Reiner, Robert Klein, Anthony Lapaglia, Juliette Lewis, Liev Schriber, Rita Wilson, Parker Posey and Jon Stewart. In 1995 she had small but hilarious turn as the alcoholic Martha Mitchell in Oliver Stone’s Nixon, and was a regular on her third sitcom New York News, with Mary Tyler Moore and Gregory Harrison (it lasted thirteen episodes).
I would be remiss in the present context to omit mentioning her supporting role in the TV movie Ivana Trump’s For Love Alone (1986), directed by no less than Michael Lindsay-Hogg (Orson Welles’ illegitimate son and director of the Beatles’ break up documentary Let it Be), starring convicted pedophile Stephen Collins as a thinly-veiled Donald Trump. That is like a VAT of sweet-smelling sewage — GOTTA watch that one. DVDs of it seem to be available to purchase online, but I wouldn’t. Two Russians will probably show up at your house and force you to eat a radioactive lozenge.
From 1996 to her death Kahn had a regular role on Cosby — yet another unsavory tabloid association.
Her last film was the critically acclaimed indie Judy Berlin (1999) with Edie Falco, Barbara Barrie, Bob Dishy, Julie Kavner, and Anne Meara. If she’d lived longer, I bet she’d have done more tasteful, intimate stuff like this.
Kahn won an Emmy for her work in the 1986 ABC Afterschool Special Wanted: The Perfect Guy. She also did voiceovers in the animated family films My Little Pony: The Movie (1986), An American Tail (1986), and A Bug’s Life (1998).
Cancer took Madeline Kahn in late 1999 at the age of 57, less than a month shy of the new millennium. That’s right — Gene Wilder lost both Gilda Radner and Madeline Kahn to cancer. Come to think of it, we all did!
To learn more about variety entertainment (including cabaret and tv variety), please see my book No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous, and for more on classic and slapstick comedy, please read Chain of Fools: Silent Comedy and Its Legacies from Nickelodeons to Youtube.