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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
That’s David Marshall Grant at far left, in the Harvard T-shirt.