Friday, April 3, 2015

Ranking the Movies of Madeline Kahn, Part II

With David Bowie in Yellowbeard.

Last time we looked at the worst movies in which Madeline appeared, in which she herself wasn’t always terribly good; and the movies in which she appeared so briefly that she couldn’t do much for the picture, one way or another. Now we turn to the middle ground: movies that should have been better than they are, in which Madeline again and again delivers reliably good performances.

To understand her preeminence in Hollywood comedies, it’s key to recognize that reliability. Most of the time, Madeline was a thorough professional, no matter what craziness went on around her, and she could make even substandard material seem solid, getting laughs where none were expected. In our interview, Peter Bodganovich pointed to the line “I’m coming in!” from What’s Up, Doc?: on the page, it wasn’t funny, but Madeline’s delivery had the crew — and the audience — in stitches.

The following movies aren’t on a par with What’s Up, Doc?, of course, and they’re unlikely to win Madeline any new fans. But for those who are already her fans, there’s plenty of interest.


As Mrs. Yellowbeard.

Yellowbeard. Madeline is the lone female comic in this all-star extravaganza, but a weak script (by a small committee that included star Graham Chapman, Chapman’s lover, and Peter Cook) and the wildly conflicting comedy styles of the cast (drawn principally from Monty Python, Mel Brooks movies, classic British cinema — and Cheech and Chong) make Yellowbeard bewilderingly unfunny. Ultimately, it’s more successful as a pirate adventure. Madeline’s performance is among the best of the lot, however, graced with a flattering costume and a passable Cockney accent. With Python-worthy lines like “I always wanted to be rich enough to own Denmark,” she even gets laughs.

Damsel in Distress.

City Heat. Blake Edwards wrote the original screenplay and expected to direct the movie, then got shoved aside by star Clint Eastwood in favor of Richard Benjamin, who never got a handle on this movie’s mix of buddy comedy and extreme violence. Today, co-star Jane Alexander says she doesn’t believe even Eastwood could direct a viable picture from this material. Madeline got the welcome chance to work again with Burt Reynolds, who recommended her for her role when another actress dropped out, but he was severely injured on the first day of shooting, leading to complications that plagued him for years to come — so the experience wasn’t as much fun as she’d hoped. She looks fantastic in her negligée, though, and she manages a couple of decent scenes.


As the First Lady, with Bob Newhart and (in background) Richard Benjamin, Austin Pendleton, Gilda Radner, and Fred Willard.

First Family. Veteran screenwriter Buck Henry’s debut — and swansong — as a writer–director features a wonderful cast, several terrific performances, an intriguing concept, and a script that just doesn’t hang together. Isolated scenes are often funny, but the increasingly dark political satire turned off audiences in previews, and it necessitated a happier but hastily written and filmed finale. Madeline is onscreen throughout the movie, though she’s usually in the background and doesn’t have much to say: as the discreetly dipsomaniac First Lady, she manages to convey varying degrees of drunkenness using just her face and body. Her most substantial dialogue scene is shared with her friend Gilda Radner, and the movie is also Madeline’s last with frequent co-stars Austin Pendleton and Harvey Korman. You spend most of the movie wondering why it isn’t better than it is.

With Alan Arkin in an autographed publicity still.

Simon. Released the same year as First Family, this is another directorial debut from a successful screenwriter, in this case Marshall Brickman, who collaborated on some of Woody Allen’s best pictures in the 1970s. The picture is stuffed with good ideas, yet it doesn’t hang together: at the time, critics blamed Alan Arkin’s performance in the title role (“much too dour,” said the New York Times), but really it’s a matter of the shapeless structure of the script and a fundamental lack of focus: what is this movie trying to say, really? As a brainy femme fatale, Madeline got second billing, though she has only about five minutes of screen time. But she’s working alongside Arkin (her co-star in Candide in 1968) and her pal Austin Pendleton (in one of his largest screen roles); the movie also features her colleague from Upstairs at the Downstairs, Judy Graubart, and the co-writer of On the Twentieth Century, Adolph Green. They’re all marvelous, actually, but the movie is less than the sum of its parts.

With Molly Ringwald as Betsy.

Betsy’s Wedding. A very strange picture, in which Betsy and her wedding seem almost like afterthoughts. Writer–director–star Alan Alda makes scant use of Madeline, and we watch her fleeting interactions with actors like Catherine O’Hara and Joe Pesci while craving so much more: how can these great opportunities have slipped through Alda’s fingers? The movie is commandeered by Anthony La Paglia’s bravura performance as a young gangster, and it’s worth watching mostly for him.

Coming Soon: Madeline’s Animated and Television Movies.

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