To get a real sense of what Madeline was capable of onscreen, from goofiness to heartbreak, from jubilant singing to painful silence, we’re left with two movies. One was a respectable success at the time of its release but is often overlooked today; the other is still looking for its rightful audience. Both are brilliant tributes to a remarkable artist.
The Adventure of Sherlock Holmes’ Smarter Brother. Gene Wilder’s directorial debut has its flaws, but it succeeds absolutely at one of its primary goals: providing good roles for actors Wilder loved, and Madeline first among them. He’d marveled at her talent ever since Blazing Saddles, when he hung around the set to watch Madeline sing “I’m Tired.” After the shoot was finished, “I told Mel that if the movie were just her one number, it would be worth the price of admission,” Wilder says, and he immediately began to think of her for the movie he was writing at the time — Young Frankenstein. And his experience on that picture was so rewarding that he determined to write parts especially for Madeline and Marty Feldman in Smarter Brother, declaring that he couldn’t make the movie without them. Dom DeLuise is on board, too, as a deliriously duplicitous opera singer.
To add to the fun of working with her friends, the movie was filmed in England — where Madeline had never been. Before shooting started, she took advantage of the trip to make her first visit to Europe.
An opera singer at last: Madeline in costume for the Ballo sequence of Smarter Brother.
This seems to have been a favorite photo; she kept several copies in her personal collection.
Madeline plays Jenny Hill, who can tell the truth only when she’s sexually aroused: obviously not a case for Sherlock, who tricks his brother Sigi into taking over. Jenny is a music-hall artiste and opera singer, affording Madeline several opportunities to sing, and affording Wilder many times over the kind of pleasure he felt while listening to her “I’m Tired.” Really, Smarter Brother is almost stealthily a musical comedy, and Madeline even gets a shot at Verdi’s Un Ballo in Maschera. (The performance falls apart, much as Verdi’s Trovatore does in the Marx Brothers’ A Night at the Opera.) Jenny is a remarkably juicy role, and for Wilder, “the beauty of Madeline’s performance was that she could sing English music hall and opera, plus do comedy and drama … all equally well,” he says. “She could, occasionally, do comedy and drama at the same time.” No single movie better presents the range of Madeline’s gifts.
Her onscreen chemistry with Wilder is exceptionally strong here. It’s easy enough to understand why he didn’t write for her again — she’d have been miscast in his next film, The World’s Greatest Lover, and later comic roles went to the woman he married, Gilda Radner. Yet one also sees that both stars might have shone brighter, if only they’d worked together more often.
Judy Berlin. In Eric Mendelsohn’s first feature as writer–director, Madeline at last found a movie role that went beyond the “sketches” or “bits” that she complained of for so long. She plays Alice Gold, a Long Island housewife who, during a solar eclipse, begins to see her own life more clearly. Madeline set aside many of her hang-ups for the movie, the first and only independent film of her career, and she abandoned some of her usual safeguards: for one, Judy Berlin is shot in black-and-white, which she had always found unflattering, and for another, she plays a far-from-glamorous, un-sexy, middle-aged mother and wife. Yet her sympathy for Alice Gold is unmistakable — remarkably so, from an unmarried, childless actress — and as she wanders about her neighborhood in sneakers and a down jacket, she’s irresistibly cute and, in her emotional fragility, quite beautiful after all.
It’s exquisite work, tracing a gossamer thread between comedy and tragedy, and Jeffrey Seckendorff’s cinematography catches the luminosity of Madeline’s face and the minute flickers of her emotion. She’s completely submerged in the character. In many ways, the role is a summation of Madeline’s career, combining the lessons she’d learned in earlier work with the instincts and experience life gave her. By now, she knew how to find the sympathetic heart of a woman who might otherwise seem shallow, annoying, or ridiculous. While one of her least-known performances, Alice Gold is one of her very finest, and it should have been the prelude to a new era in her work. You leave the movie wondering what might have been.
Today, Mendelsohn wonders whether his first movie was truly worthy of her. “I was such an amateur, and she was such a pro,” he says. “When she died, I felt as if I had let down all the people who expected one kind of thing from her, and that her last offering had to be my paltry film.” But the one thing Madeline wanted was to defy moviegoers’ expectations of her, and Mendelsohn helped her to do it. Her friend David Marshall Grant remembers that she told him, “I’m so glad that happened before I died.”