Saturday, April 4, 2015

Rating the Movies of Madeline Kahn, Part III

With Ben Affleck in Wanted: The Perfect Guy.

By the mid-1980s, Madeline Kahn worried that she’d never work again. Two television series, Oh Madeline and Mr. President, had been cancelled, and while shooting the pilot for a third, Chameleon, Madeline was so unhappy that she tried to get out of her contract — but no network picked up the show. Now that she was in her 40s, movie offers dwindled, Mel Brooks stopped working with her, and Clue flopped. Though she’d always been careful with money, her mother never was, and Madeline had assumed full financial responsibility for Paula Kahn beginning in 1976. Madeline needed work — and income — to support her mother.

Now she began to reassess many of her career strategies, and she took increasing interest in voiceover work. Her voice had always been her single greatest asset as a performer, and her appearance her single greatest source of anxiety: animated movies held out an elegant solution. I haven’t rated them here: if you want to watch My Little Pony, you’re welcome to. Madeline had fun making that picture, but she’s used to better advantage in An American Tail, offering a variation on her patented German accent in a screenplay by Tony Geiss, the lyricist who wrote “Das Chicago Song” for her. Best of all is A Bug’s Life. As the faded beauty, Gypsy, Madeline offers a delicate characterization that would have suited her well in a live-action picture.

Mama, I’m pretty: Gypsy.

Mostly, Madeline looked for work in television. She maintained her refusal to take guest-starring roles on sitcoms, which she didn’t consider special enough, and this is why we don’t see her in programs where she might have shone: Cheers, Taxi, Murphy Brown, and Evening Shade, to name a few. In the 1990s, guest appearances on other series led to some delightful, highly recommended work: single episodes of Avonlea, Lucky Luke, and Monkey House (which contains one of her finest performances). Beyond this, Madeline made television commercials, which she hadn’t done since the 1960s, and a few TV movies. In these projects, she knew she would still be considered a star. One TV movie would earn her a Daytime Emmy. But others — well, see for yourself. I’ve ranked them from worst to best.


Yes, this movie is available for your own home video library.

For Love Alone: The Ivana Trump Story. The stinker of the lot, based on a roman à clef by Mrs. Trump herself, who shows up in a brief cameo. The actors do their best, but the script is terrible; Madeline manages to create her character, a conniving gossip columnist, mainly by adroit use of her eyeglasses. Looking eerily like Edna Mode of The Incredibles, she’s like an owl spying on mice in a garden.

With Lemmon in For Richer, for Poorer.

For Richer, for Poorer. Madeline jumped at the chance to work with Jack Lemmon, a brilliant actor who also made his co-stars look good and sometimes steered them to award nominations: Walter Matthau, Lee Remick, Shirley MacLaine, Jack Gilford, Tony Curtis. In the early 1990s, she was also eager to show her solidarity with the homeless — but the script uses her character, Billie, primarily as a plot device, and she’s never credible for an instant. The first of two TV movies in which she co-starred with Jonathan Silverman without ever appearing onscreen with him. And the second was …

Neil Simon’s London Suite. A mix of comedy and drama featuring a cast drawn mostly from NBC sitcoms, this movie points the way to the kind of role that likely would have dominated Madeline’s career as she matured: the priggish matron who lets her hair down. (See also Mixed Nuts and many episodes of Cosby.) It’s not a great part, but she finds a good deal of comedy and an undercurrent of vulnerability as a woman who shops compulsively rather than confront her grief and loneliness after the death of her husband. Richard Mulligan is awful as her love interest, a badly written role, though he gets farther with Madeline than he did in Harvey, so many years before.

With Mulligan in London Suite.

Harvey. Jimmy Stewart returned to his signature role in Mary Chase’s comedy so many times that he started running out of actresses to play his sister: Helen Hayes told him to stop calling her, he confessed to Rex Reed in an interview. Hayes and Stewart had just come from a short-lived New York revival when they starred in this Hallmark Hall of Fame adaptation, directed by Fielder Cook, (who also directed From the Mixed-up Files). Madeline’s role, that of Nurse Ruth Kelly, is drastically cut down, but she plays the character as written: we sense the romantic subplot between her and the doctor — Richard Mulligan again — even though we don’t see it played out. The big appeal, for her fans, is seeing her share substantial scenes with Hayes and Stewart, two of the best-loved actors America ever produced.

With Stewart in Harvey.

Wanted: The Perfect Guy. The best of Madeline’s TV movies is the shortest. Madeline won a Daytime Emmy for this ABC After-School Special, a light comedy that shows her at her least zany. Really, Madeline’s role is probably the least comic one in the picture, an exceptional rarity for her. She plays a working single mom whose well-meaning son (a young, very raw Ben Affleck) meddles in her personal life by writing a singles ad for her. In quick strokes Madeline conveys loneliness, weariness, and tenderness for her son, while employing a few tricks we’ve seen in other, very different characters: she tends to chatter, for example, like Trixie Delight in Paper Moon and Gorgeous Teitelbaum in The Sisters Rosensweig, but less from desperation than from a relentless attempt to communicate with a teenage boy who may or may not heed a word she says. Madeline won the Daytime Emmy for her role in Perfect Guy, opposite tough competition: LeVar Burton, Ruth Buzzi, Adolph Caesar, and Paul Reubens (a.k.a. Pee Wee Herman).

Directed by Catlin Adams and written by Mary P. Willis — among the very few women directors and writers with whom Madeline ever worked — Wanted: The Perfect Guy was shot around Tompkins Square Park on Manhattan’s Lower East Side, still a dangerous neighborhood at the time, as well as the scene (about a year after the movie aired) of one of the most violent riots in the city’s recent history. Look for a quick cameo from Melanie Mayron (as a kindred spirit to her own Melissa Steadman from thirtysomething) and some fabulous wardrobe choices inspired by pop stars from Lauper to Springsteen. One other bit of trivia: while shooting the movie, Affleck stayed with his mother’s half-sister — who also put me up on some of my earliest visits to New York. Presumably we used the same guest room, though not at the same time. (We’ve never met, and he didn’t respond to my requests for an interview.)

Ben was such a nice boy. I wonder what ever happened to him?

Coming Soon: Neglected Treasures, the Classics, and the Not-to-be-Missed.

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