Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Madeline Kahn: Progress Report 6

Though this is not really a report on my progress in writing her authorized biography, I note that today marks Madeline Kahn’s 67th birthday. How young she would have been, if she were still among us! It’s a reminder that she managed to create an admirable body of work in a relatively short time, and to make a lasting impression on us.

Please join me in celebrating her memory today — perhaps in a chorus of “Ah! Sweet Mystery of Life.”
And a reminder: if you’d like to help in the fight against ovarian cancer — the disease that cut short the sweet mystery of Madeline’s life — you can make a donation to the Ovarian Cancer Research Fund. Thanks.

Monday, August 31, 2009

Madeline Kahn: Progress Report 5

In her Un Ballo in Maschera costume,
from Gene Wilder’s
Sherlock Holmes’ Smarter Brother
This seems to have been one of her favorite publicity shots.

We were sitting there, Madeline and I, talking quietly about her life. She was in her early 50s at the time, her red hair was curled and styled, not long, and she wore a chic white suit; we sat in the lobby of a hotel in New York City, undisturbed by the bustle around us.

She began to tell me about an early experience in the theater, when a stage director sexually harassed her — much worse abuse, really, than that heaped mercilessly on her by Danny Kaye, when she appeared with him on Broadway in the Richard Rodgers musical Two by Two. I’d never heard of any of this — none of her family or colleagues had told me such a story. “Didn’t you complain to anybody?” I asked. “Didn’t you try to find someone to help?”

“Where was I supposed to go?” she answered. “I was so young, and he was the one in charge, after all. If I complained to the producers, they’d probably just fire me and hire someone else who could take it. I thought an actress had to put up with this sort of thing.”

I didn’t know what to say. I reached for her hand. “I’m so glad you’re telling me these things,” I said.

Only now did I notice that her eyes were brimming with tears. “So am I,” she said, taking my hand now in both of hers.

Then I woke up.

For it was just a dream. I never met Madeline Kahn, though for nearly a year I’ve been consumed with writing her authorized biography. The details of the story she told me don’t correspond to anything I’ve found in my research. (Except, as I say, a more brutish variation on her experiences with Danny Kaye.) Even if you believe in dreams — as some of Madeline’s friends do — this doesn’t seem to be a revelation. It may not be much of a sign, either. A little one, perhaps, but not more.

Those of a more practical frame of mind will be inclined to analyze the dream thus: I’ve been thinking about her a lot, and so naturally I continued to think about her in my sleep.

I hope she’ll be back, now and then, as I continue to write. In life, she’d have been horrified to know that anyone was writing her story: she was an intensely private person, I’ve learned, and discretion and dignity were among her most treasured possessions. But I believe that her audience — still vast — will appreciate her better if they understand what went into creating her art. And to do that, I’ve got to write as if I knew her.

For many of her fans, she is present. Quite a number of them (and at least one former colleague with whom I’ve spoken) didn’t even know she was dead. But such was her contribution to popular culture that she remains in our consciousness, as vividly as she appeared in my dream. That’s what my words must capture, and honor.

“Taffeta, darling!”
With Wilder, in
Young Frankenstein

Thursday, June 11, 2009

Madeline Kahn: Progress Report 4

This week I had the pleasure of an interview with Bill Cosby, star and executive producer of the sitcom (1996–2000) on which Madeline Kahn gave the final performances of her career. I call it an “interview,” yet it’s far more accurate to call it an hour-long monologue that began when I said, “Hello,” and ended when Dr. Cosby said, “Goodbye.”

I am by no means complaining. The gentleman has been delivering monologues for something like half a century, and on this occasion, he offered anecdote and analysis, poetry and laugh-out-loud comedy — in abundance — for me alone. (Ultimately, I’ll share it with you.)

In the aftermath of that interview, I’m struck by how many of Madeline’s colleagues in comedy have wielded an astonishing influence on our culture.

In Cosby’s case that influence seems to have been planned from the start. His standup routines, his sitcoms and educational TV shows, and even his TV commercials emphasized the themes that unite Americans, focusing on experiences common to most of us. Ethnicity had nothing to do with his humor — and yet it was ever-present, like the paintings in the Huxtable living-room. “Without denying who I am,” Cosby seemed to say, “I can prove to you that you and I are more alike than different.”

That stance wasn’t as revolutionary as Richard Pryor’s (to cite the example with which Cosby is most likely to be compared for all eternity), yet it has proved fundamental to the construction of a more equitable and ultimately more humane society in the United States. That isn’t to say that we don’t have a long way yet to go. But would we have gotten this far without Cosby? I sincerely doubt it.

It didn’t hurt that the material was awfully good, specific and sharply observed, and it holds up beautifully. In preparing for our interview, I went to YouTube to listen to a few of the old routines — many of which I knew by heart, because my cousin Paulie (Midwestern, suburban, blond) used to recite them all. And decades later, Bill Cosby is still “a very funny fellow,” as the title of one of his albums ran.

Another of Madeline’s colleagues, Lily Tomlin, has done something similar, slipping fairly subtle messages on feminism, sexism, and racism into her comedy. The beautiful “Tell Miss Sweeney Goodbye” monologue is tender and very funny, tapping into the fairly typical childhood experiences of classroom aspirations and humiliations while focusing on a young girl’s crush on her schoolteacher. Most people can identify with that, I think, yet the monologue is also a depiction of awakening sexuality — gay sexuality.

There are glimpses of a similar perspective on Tomlin’s second record album, And That’s the Truth, in which five-and-a-half-year-old Edith Ann has something very like a crush on her neighbor, a working single woman named Lily.

Lily Tomlin raised my consciousness in other ways, too. She was the first person I was aware of to use the term “Ms.” (Somebody had to be the first, after all.) Offstage, she was a model of strength, intelligence, and compassion, and she remains that, while onstage she can summon the power to populate a whole city with distinctive characters. There’s a reason that we use the word “omnipotent” to describe her, and it’s not only because that’s how Ernestine used to describe the phone company. And a woman’s power is what feminism is all about.

I arrived at the work of Mel Brooks a little late to be affected by him as profoundly as I was by Tomlin and Cosby, yet as an adult I have seen that his films are infused with a highly developed political consciousness. Very often, his crudest jokes force us to confront unpleasant truths about our society and about ourselves. As a result, the power of certain stereotypes is diminished.

Blazing Saddles is a perfect example: over the course of the film, the “N-word” loses its power to offend, and Mandingo-like notions of black men’s sexuality are turned on their heads. (Brooks does something similar with Madeline’s character in Young Frankenstein, a stereotypical Princess.)

I spoke with Brooks on Inauguration Day, when I observed that it was entirely possible that America might not have a black President, if Brooks hadn’t first offered us a black sheriff. And I’m far from the first person to observe that many Americans have responded to Barack Obama as if he were a kind of updated, political Cliff Huxtable.

It’s been exciting — a privilege — to speak with these people. They helped to create the cultural values with which I live. They were the kinds of artists, the kinds of adults I wanted to grow up to become. Our conversations helped me to focus on their influences and the manifold meanings of their works, and to appreciate them better. (Just as my conversations with Betty Aberlin have helped me to understand her work, and Fred Rogers’; my conversation with Hal Prince made me realize how much he has shaped my ideas of theater, too. And the list, I’m pleased to say, goes on.)

Moreover, those conversations have served to remind me that these are real people, not just images on a screen. They are men and women doing a job, teaching us, and somehow that makes them even more extraordinary.

Thursday, May 7, 2009

Madeline Kahn: Progress Report 3

Frequent co-star Dom DeLuise

Just as I complete the book proposal for the authorized biography of Madeline Kahn, the need for speed (or at least for efficient time management) is made apparent once again. One of Madeline's close friends and most frequent co-stars, Dom DeLuise, has died, and I never got to interview him. DeLuise and his wife, Carol, brightened many an evening for Madeline, whenever she was in L.A., and Dom and Madeline shared an interest in opera. (Predictably, perhaps, DeLuise's "interest" was really an outsize passion.) I'm sure they could have helped me to draw a more rounded portrait.

But I'm sorry to see Dom DeLuise go, for reasons that have nothing to do with the biography.

When he was at his best, he captured that giggly giddiness that I've seldom felt since childhood: the sheer helpless­ness of having laughed too hard for too long. What's striking is that, for most comics, the surest way to lose a laugh is to start laughing: if you think you're funny, no one else will agree. (This is the reason my stand-up career doesn't even get past the dinner table.) DeLuise was exceptional, because he gave the impression that he was already hysterical before a sketch began, very much in on the joke and out of control. In reality, he must have calculated some or most of his effects, yet you couldn't see it. His abandon was infectious, and soon enough, you'd be laughing, too.

Thanks to my research on Madeline Kahn, I've caught up with DeLuise's performance in Gene Wilder's film, The Adventure of Sherlock Holmes' Smarter Brother. He plays an Italian opera singer who is, of course, a spy, and in the funniest scene in the picture, he squares off against Professor Moriarty (the great Leo McKern). In seconds, the two criminal masterminds are fighting like pre­schoolers. If you haven't seen the movie (which also features some wonderful musical numbers for Madeline), hop to it! It's a great way to pay tribute to a funny man.

Tuesday, April 14, 2009

Madeline Kahn: Progress Report 2

I’ve spent the past several weeks entirely consumed with the preparation of the book proposal for the authorized biography of Madeline Kahn, which my agent will be pitching to publishers in the weeks to come. It’s been exhilarating yet frankly exhausting work, assembling and synthesizing my research (thus far). On the one hand, I’m almost giddy with the tally of my interviews: more than three dozen, including Madeline’s relatives by her mother and stepfather; and a stellar contingent of her professional associates, including Mel Brooks, Peter Bogdanovich, Lily Tomlin, and Gene Wilder. I’ve made my own, really gratifying personal connections, too, especially with Madeline’s friends Betty Aberlin, Walter Willison, and the sublime Gail Jacobs. I’m looking forward to speaking further with all of them — and with tracking down the many other friends and colleagues who can help me to tell her story.

As I write, Madeline shines through every anecdote and reminiscence. Many of her friends describe her as “luminous,” and that quality transcends their speech. I’m getting a clearer sense of her — and a sense, too, of just how phenomenally difficult an actress’ life can be. It’s not just the question of getting or not getting a role: it’s what happens after you’ve gotten it, the many factors beyond your control that can capsize not only the movie or play but your entire career.

Madeline Kahn’s reputation springs from a handful of movies, made between 1972 and 1975. Thereafter, picture after picture turned out to be a dud, with few exceptions, and it doesn’t seem to matter much that Madeline was giving terrific performances.* The scariest thing may be that, time and again, there was no reason for Madeline to suspect that the picture would be anything but terrific.

Take the case of Won Ton Ton, the Dog Who Saved Hollywood (1976). This was Madeline’s big chance for leading-lady status, following her classic featured performances in the Bogdanovich and Brooks pictures, and all the signs looked favorable. Won Ton Ton would boast a competent director (Michael Winner, who had recently scored a hit with Death Wish), and talented co-stars including the great Art Carney, Bruce Dern, and Madeline’s friend Teri Garr. Supporting them were dozens of old-time Hollywood stars in cameo roles, which must have sounded like fun, and reportedly the script looked terrific — on paper. The finished picture is a catastrophic mess, marked by egregious lapses in taste and clumsily handled slapstick; even the star cameos fall flat. In movies thereafter, Madeline stuck to supporting roles and cameos of her own. Safer that way.

“You go into every project with hope,” the actor David Marshall Grant told me the other day. (He co-starred with Madeline in Happy Birthday, Gemini, a movie based on Albert Innaurato’s hit Broadway comedy, for which both he and Madeline had high expectations — that went unmet.) Grant talked about the actor’s need for “optimism,” yet I’m struck by the need for courage. Merely in order to communicate with you and me, an actor works hard and takes phenomenal risks, with no guarantees, then wakes up the next day and does it all over again.

There’s a reason we applaud these men and women. They do that which we could not.

* Clue, from 1985, is a curiosity: since its release, it’s become a cult classic, and from what I can tell that’s largely due to Madeline’s performance. (“Flames! Flames on the side of my face!”) Now, if news reports are to believed, Gore Verbinski is actually planning a remake, though of course he won’t benefit from the performances of the original cast: Madeline, Tim Curry, Eileen Brennan, Christopher Lloyd, Martin Mull, and Leslie Ann Warren. If you can’t have those guys, why bother?