29 September 2012

Progress Report 17: Madeline at 70

A favorite picture of her — relaxed, beautiful, happy.
On the set of Won Ton Ton, the Dog Who Saved Hollywood (1975).
Photo by WVM of a photo from Madeline’s collection.

Madeline Kahn would have turned 70 today. She’s not here to help us celebrate, of course — she died in 1999, of ovarian cancer. As I prepare her authorized biography, I realize that death cut short a remarkable comeback in Madeline’s career, with triumphs onstage and onscreen after so many years of working hard and waiting for a hit — and even fearing unemployment. Now I often find myself wondering what might have been, had Madeline lived and worked a little longer.

Like so many other actors who make a lasting mark in comedy, Madeline yearned to take on more serious roles. It’s telling that, in interviews, she often pointed to David Rabe’s harrowing stage play In the Boom Boom Room (Lincoln Center Theater, 1973) as the work she was proudest of: as the much-abused go-go girl Chrissy, Madeline won her first Tony nomination.

Certainly she knew how to inject a note of pathos into otherwise comic roles, as we see even in the broad characters of Lili von Shtupp (“Vot a nice guy!”) and Miss Trixie Delight (whom we remember perhaps least of all for “going winky tinky all the time”). But her final film role points her in what should have been new directions.

As Alice Gold in Judy Berlin (1999).

In Eric Mendelsohn’s Judy Berlin (1999), Madeline plays Alice Gold, a Long Island housewife who is enlightened — paradoxically, during an eclipse — coming to a new understanding of her life and her closest relationships. A middle-aged character actress by now, Madeline is indisputably cute as she roams the dark suburban streets in her down jacket and tennis shoes, but she’s relieved of the burden of playing a glamorous sexpot, the kind of role she took in most of her best-known films. And as the wondering Alice, she delivers a subtly nuanced performance that surely would have captured the attention of casting directors and the admiration of other filmmakers.

“I’m so glad I was able to make that movie before I died,” she told her friend David Marshall Grant, during one of their last conversations.

“In our circles, in our circles”:
As Mavis Danton, with Carol Burnett as Eunice Higgins (1976).

Madeline almost certainly would have continued to work on television. She tried for years to break through in a weekly series, beginning with her own, Oh, Madeline! (1983–84), and proceeding through Mr. President with George C. Scott (1987–88) and New York News with Mary Tyler Moore (1995). Each of these series fell victim to the ratings, but at the end of her life, Madeline’s luck improved.

Beginning in 1996, Bill Cosby’s final sitcom, Cosby, reunited him with Phylicia Rashad, again playing his wife; Madeline played her best friend and business partner, Pauline, amiably sparring with Cosby and generally playing a reliable sidekick. The show earned solid ratings (albeit not comparable with those of Cosby’s legendary 1980s show), and provided Madeline with colleagues who appreciated her. As executive producer, Cosby advocated strengthening the character of Pauline — and given more time, he might have succeeded in persuading the writers to do so.

In Hello, Dolly! (1992).
Photo courtesy of Richard Skipper.

Buoyed by positive experiences in a touring production of Hello, Dolly! in 1992 and The Sisters Rosensweig in New York in 1993–94, Madeline might have returned to the stage, too, despite a spotty track record and her own resulting ambivalence. Yes, Two by Two (1970–71) and On the Twentieth Century (1978) left lasting scars, but a Tony award for Sisters Rosensweig surely boosted her morale. Since she understood Miss Trixie as a Tennessee Williams character (not Blanche DuBois as it happens, but Baby Doll), she might successfully have ventured Amanda Wingfield in The Glass Menagerie, for example.

She might have tried other musical roles, as well. Though her lyric soprano had mellowed somewhat with age, Madeline remained an excellent musician and pursued voice lessons on a regular basis. As a Kurt Weill fan (like Madeline herself), I thrill to think what she might have done in a revival of Lady in the Dark. Her old friend Michael Cohen, who wrote the Weill parody “Das Chicago Song” for her at the start of their careers, had resumed writing music-theater pieces, and a new collaboration might have served both exceedingly well.

Maggie Smith in Downton Abbey.
Please note that, in a manner of speaking, there are flames on the side of her face.

But these are all “mature” roles, as casting directors say: what if Madeline were alive right now? What sorts of roles might she play in her golden years? I got an inkling one night while watching Downton Abbey, in which one of Britain’s best-loved actresses fires off withering yet elegant zingers like ordnance from a tommy gun, week after week. Who else has had that brilliant sort of delivery, the ability to make the mildest line most telling, the power to invest any sidelong glance with meaning?

There you have it, I thought: if Madeline had lived, she’d be America’s answer to Maggie Smith by now. And as Dame Maggie herself has become something of a cottage industry in British films and television, we can see that Madeline might have been very busy indeed at this point in her career. Around her, some canny American producer might even have constructed an American adaptation of Downton Abbey — or Best Exotic Marigold Hotel — to cite just two of the permutations that would have been possible.

I’d love to know what other roles you think Madeline might have played — and I hope you’ll join me in wishing her a very happy birthday.

Celebrating someone else’s birthday: As Bunny Weinberger in Happy Birthday, Gemini (1980).
That’s David Marshall Grant at far left, in the Harvard T-shirt.


Unknown said...

In 1974 I sat with my wife in a theater in Binghamton, NY watching Blazing Saddles. When Kahn starting singing "I'm Tiiiiiired," my wife got up and moved a few seats away. I was laughing so hard I was out of control. I've always been a sucker for vocal parody, and Kahn was the best I've ever heard.

If she'd lived, and with that remarkable voice?...I'd like to have heard her do Leocadia Begbick in Mahagonny; or if she had the bottom for it, Clytaemnestra in Elektra or Herodias in Salome. The last two could be labeled impossible dreams, but I can write them anyway.

Seventy is too young to die. I'm 68. Very few days go by when I don't think of Kahn and continue to miss her.

William V. Madison said...

Thanks so much! I agree that Madeline would have made a stunning Begbick, acting the hell out of the part, though some of Begbick's music lies very low for her voice, as it was when last we heard it.

Of course nothing would prevent Madeline from portraying Clytaemnestra or Herodias in the Euripides and Wilde originals. As an actress she always found music in the text, and I can imagine she'd come up with something very impressive in these roles.

Jef Kahn said...

What a beautiful tribute to Madeline on her birthday, thank you Bill, I was deeply touched reading it, and, of course,look forward to your book.

Anonymous said...

French reader here (forgive my english) : I hope you will publish your work , kahn is best known in france for the mel brooks movies but people liked her also very much in her last "judy berlin/babylon usa"; at first glance they don't make the connection between the frankenstein junior character and her last one but when they know who is the lady who plays the mother in the film they say "ohhh that's her! I love her! what's her name? " they are full of respect because she had this sense so great of rythm in her performances

Anonymous said...

I am so glad you've updated us! I love this blog about Madeline and the process of writing the book. I've been following the Madeline Kahn portion of your blog since 2008 (under Zo Bell). If my memory is correct, several posts ago you said you were having trouble finding a publisher, how is that coming along? I know nothing about publishing or writing books so this maybe a stupid question, but I have purchased books online from authors who were unable to publish the books in hard copy or paper back, is that at all an option for this book or something you may eventually consider?

In the pervious blog you said you found something in Madeline's books written to "Bill" with the Dan Rather sayings. That gave me chills! I to believe that was a sign. I think we are drawn and connected to people for reasons we don't understand. I think that message was to you though I am sure she didn't realize it at the time of her writing it. Thanks again, so much for your blog and writing this book! ~ Zoe

William V. Madison said...

Thanks, Zoe! I'm pleased to say that University Press of Mississippi will publish the biography; they do beautiful work with books like mine, and we're aiming for the fall 2014 list. Believe me, I will keep everyone updated here -- and you can also follow The Authorized Biography of Madeline Kahn page on Facebook.

Anonymous said...

Yay, I am so thrilled to hear that! I liked the page on Facebook and shared it on my own! Congrats on the publisher by the way!


William V. Madison said...

Thanks, Zoe!