Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Madeline Kahn: Progress Report 9

“Tell me, are you in show business?”
Actress, singer, pin-up

Today is Madeline Kahn’s birthday. From my first glimpse of her onscreen, I was struck by her beauty, and while preparing her authorized biography, I’ve learned that other people share my opinion — albeit not always favorably. Lucille Ball, for example, was reportedly shocked to meet Madeline on the set of the Hollywood musical Mame, because she expected to find frumpy Eunice Burns (from What’s Up, Doc?) and instead found this delectable young soprano.

There are many theories about why Madeline lost the role of Agnes Gooch in Mame (Madeline herself gave varying accounts), but among these is the simple explanation that Lucy, already nervous about a role for which she was scarcely suited, didn’t want to compete with a younger, prettier actress with a real singing voice — and a redhead, to boot.

“She had Dietrich legs.” — Mel Brooks

Madeline bounced back immediately with Blazing Saddles, the first of four pictures she made with Mel Brooks, and the one that made her a pin-up in college dormitories across America for years to come. As Lili von Shtupp, in a Merry Widow corset and not much else, Madeline was unforgettably sexy, and Brooks continued to cast her in a glamorous light, in three subsequent pictures.

Yet even by comparison with other actresses I know, Madeline was insecure about her looks, and much of what I’ve learned from talking with colleagues, family, and friends has surprised me — if only because it never would have occurred to me that such a beautiful woman had any grounds for concern.

The Eunice Burns

Much of her insecurity seems to stem from her role in What’s Up, Doc? Madeline had gone through a chubby phase during her teens, and remained a bit zaftig as a young woman — but before Eunice, she’d always played the pretty girl.

Often that was as much a consequence of her singing ability as it was of her physical attributes. The role of Daisy Mae in Li’l Abner, which Madeline played (either while an undergraduate at Hofstra University or shortly after, in summer stock), was created by Edie Adams, another classically trained soprano, and the part requires that kind of voice. Cunegonde in Bernstein’s Candide and Musetta in Puccini’s La Bohème are glamour girls — with serious vocal chops. Likewise the role that Richard Rodgers wrote for her, Goldie, the sexy pagan girl in Two by Two. By the standards of Opera World, Madeline was slim and extremely attractive, and Broadway seems to have thought so, too.

Welcome to Dogpatch: In Li’l Abner at Hofstra
Photo courtesy of Jeffrey Kahn

But for What’s Up, Doc?, Madeline’s first Hollywood movie, the costume designer hid her assets under an intentionally unflattering wig and housecoat, and it’s the movie’s star, Barbra Streisand, who gets to sing. As the movie plays out, it is of course Streisand’s Judy — not Madeline’s Eunice — who wins the heart of Ryan O’Neal’s handsome Howard Bannister. (In real life, too, O’Neal preferred Streisand: their affair ended just before filming began.)

Four decades later, movie audiences have come to appreciate Streisand’s distinctive beauty: we know where to look for it now. But in 1972, we hadn’t had as much practice, and while it’s one thing to sit in the movie audience and admire Streisand (as Madeline did, too), it was another matter entirely to be playing a less attractive character opposite her, day after day.

Eunice is the brunt of many of the movie’s jokes, as well. In the courtroom scene, when she claims that thugs tried to molest her, the judge replies, “That’s unbelievable.”

Madeline’s insecurities mounted. Jeffrey Kahn remembers his sister’s late-night phone calls from California. “Is this how people really see me?” she wept.

It did seem to be the way that Hollywood saw her. A publicity photograph from Warner Bros. shows Madeline so plump (and suntanned) that I didn’t recognize her at first. Sifting through her photo albums, I sometimes wonder why she kept some pictures and not others: why, for example, did she keep this publicity still, which is probably the worst picture she ever took? Granted, she’s smiling: maybe this picture evoked happy memories of her promising start in the movies.

Or was this a “before” picture, to remind her to watch her weight? Is it an accident that she kept only one of the Warner Bros. picture, but several copies of a photo from The Adventure of Sherlock Holmes’ Smarter Brother (released three years after What’s Up, Doc?) — in which we see Madeline at her slimmest and most beautiful?

Was this her favorite publicity photo?

One of Madeline’s boyfriends has told me that she was so concerned about overeating that after a party, she’d throw out leftover desserts, then sprinkle kitchen cleanser over them, to be sure she wouldn’t fish them out of the trash on a late-night binge. Another close friend realized quite abruptly in the middle of an interview that she had never seen Madeline eat an entire portion of anything. Now she wondered whether Madeline had an eating disorder.

Concern for her appearance sometimes led to conflict with directors. “She’d been burned twice in two pictures of mine,” Peter Bogdanovich said with an audible deadpan during our interview. “One [What’s Up, Doc?] made her a star and the other one [Paper Moon] got her an Oscar nomination. But she didn’t like the way she looked.”

That’s an understatement. In a newspaper interview in the 1990s, Madeline even described her characters in Bogdanovich’s films as “the ugly stepsisters” to Streisand, Tatum O’Neal, and Cybill Shepherd — and it’s clear she wasn’t talking only about her characters’ functions in the plot of each film.

As Miss Trixie Delight

Paper Moon’s black-and-white photography was unflattering to her, Madeline believed, and she didn’t like her character’s tight, yet frilly, wardrobe. On the set of At Long Last Love, her third and final picture with Bogdanovich, Madeline feared that she’d look dowdy opposite Shepherd, the reigning beauty of the day (and Bogdanovich’s lover at the time).

Disobeying orders, Madeline got a suntan. This was all wrong for the movie’s 1930s setting, and what’s worse, “She looked like a lobster,” Bodganovich told me. Makeup artists had to work hard to hide her freckles. Yet most of her costumes are extremely becoming, and despite her anxieties, she holds her own opposite Shepherd. In Bogdanovich’s estimation today, “She looks fine.”

In At Long Last Love, with Duilio del Prete, Cybill Shepherd, and Burt Reynolds

Gene Wilder told me that the only time he and Madeline ever clashed was when she saw the wigs she was to wear in Smarter Brother, his directorial debut. She apologized the next day, he says, with a handwritten note and a drawing of a witch: “You will never see this person again,” she wrote. The production went smoothly thereafter; to my eyes she looks especially lovely in that film.

But glamorous treatment at the hands of trusted colleagues like Wilder and Brooks couldn’t guarantee the kind of affirmative responses Madeline needed. Even the adoration of college boys only made her worry that her young fans expected her to be the bawdy character she played in Brooks’ comedies, a far cry from her reserved, well-mannered self.

As if by moonlight…

Sometimes, even critics who liked her could be cruel (inadvertently, I presume). In Young Frankenstein, Madeline seems to have been photographed in perpetual moonlight — she glistens and sparkles — and yet, in her review of the movie in The New Yorker, Pauline Kael wrote:
Madeline Kahn has an extra dimension of sexiness; it’s almost like what Mae West had — she’s flirtatious in a self-knowing way. And everything that’s wrong about her is sexy. You look at her and think, What a beautiful translucent skin on such a big jaw; what a statuesque hourglass figure, especially where the sand has slipped. She’s so self-knowingly lascivious that she convinces you she really digs the monster. Madeline Kahn is funny and enticing because she’s soaked in passion; when you look at her, you see a water bed at just the right temperature. [December 30, 1974]
“An hourglass where the sand has slipped”? “A water bed”? And this from the pen of another woman!

To add insult to insult, Kael had targeted two of the assets in which Madeline did have confidence, and for which she frequently received compliments from men (and harassment from Danny Kaye): her breasts. (She also took justifiable pride in her hair.) So she kept on watching her weight, dieting and exercising, taking dance classes. By the time she appeared in The Sisters Rosensweig at Lincoln Center, she was 50 years old, sylph-like in a leotard — and still insecure.

In Anyone Can Whistle, 1995

In talking with one of Madeline’s closest friends, I blurted out that I wished I’d known her and somehow been able to reassure her. In response, I got first a wondering look (as if to say, “Don’t you think I tried?”), and then the measured words, “Nobody could.”

Uneasy lies the head that wears the crown, and uneasy the beauty who stars on screen. Contemporary culture puts pressure on women to aspire to a certain standard of physical beauty, and Hollywood only intensifies that pressure on its actresses; I’m not sure we’ll ever figure out how to make life easier for them, though it surely helps that we’re more aware now of the challenges they face.

It would surely help, too, if we stopped comparing actresses
to water beds.

For most women, if you put on a few pounds, your self-esteem may suffer; for an actress, those same pounds can spell unemployment. And yet, to a degree, Madeline’s insecurities over her appearance underscore for me the ways in which her career — brilliant, enduring, unique — nevertheless touches on themes that are common to many American women today.

Madeline Kahn was a single woman working to support her family. She faced sexual harassment and was passed over for job opportunities, many of the jobs were tedious or beneath her abilities, and there were dry spells when she didn’t know where the next job was coming from.

And yet she kept at it, because she had to, and she gave it her best effort. I admire that in her — and in you, too.