Friday, April 17, 2015

Great Moments in a Biographer’s Career

WVM with Mitch Teich.
This and photo below by Stefan Walasz©.

In Milwaukee this week, I was interviewed by Mitch Teich, the executive producer and co-host of “Lake Effect” on WUWM, Milwaukee Public Radio. A couple of months earlier, the publicist from University Press of Mississippi had sent Mitch an advance copy of the book, bound galley proofs — and because Mitch happened to have his copy in the studio, I was able for the very first time to hold the book in my own two hands.

I confess that, seven years after I started this project, I got a little verklempt.

Madeline Kahn: Being the Music, A Life has been printed and bound, and is now in the warehouse, which means that it will be shipping soon. I’ll be sure to let you know when Mitch’s interview with me is scheduled to air on “Lake Effect”; among many other topics, we talked about Madeline’s work with one of Milwaukee’s favorite sons, Gene Wilder. I hope you’ll enjoy listening as much as I enjoyed rambling on and on.

Monday, April 6, 2015

Rating the Movies of Madeline Kahn, Part V

As Alice Gold in Judy Berlin.

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.

The man and his muse, in a publicity still.

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.”

Sunday, April 5, 2015

Rating the Movies of Madeline Kahn, Part IV

With Falk in Cheap Detective.


The Cheap Detective. Neil Simon’s second spoof of classic movies has been neglected in favor of its predecessor, Murder by Death, but it’s great fun, with many of the same assets: a terrific cast, Peter Falk’s loving impression of Bogart, snappy dialogue, and an amusing plot that makes sense even if you don’t know the movies it’s based on. As a wily femme fatale, Madeline’s character is so duplicitous she can’t remember her own aliases, and she changes her hair color so often that, by the end of the picture, she’s a fright. What really marks her performance, though, is her eyes, nervously darting as if she knows she’ll be unmasked at any second. She works beautifully with Falk, and she has fun scenes, too, with favorites Dom DeLuise and (briefly) Eileen Brennan.

With Reynolds in At Long Last Love.

At Long Last Love. Director Peter Bogdanovich and co-star Cybill Shepherd refer to this musical comedy as “the debacle,” but when you watch the recently released Blu-Ray edit, you may not understand why the movie has such a terrible reputation. True, the ostensible leads, Shepherd and Burt Reynolds, aren’t world-class singers, but she’s got a perfectly pleasant voice, and he’s fun to watch when he dances, a natural athlete goofing around. Musically, the biggest problem may be that we spend so much time hearing the songs — Cole Porter hits and rarities — sung by the same four voices; technically, the long takes and “live” singing created innumerable headaches for cast and crew, but they delivered some marvels for the audience.

Madeline had other worries, too. Always anxious about her looks, she found it intimidating to play opposite Shepherd, one of the most celebrated beauties of the day; she feared, too, that Bogdanovich favored Shepherd, his lover at the time, and that her own scenes might suffer as a result. Ultimately, however, the movie offers a wonderful showcase for her musical talents. Watch the opening scene (cut from the original release), as Madeline drunkenly staggers through her apartment, singing “Down in the Dumps (On the Ninetieth Floor)” — in one unbroken take. She sings several of her numbers in lower keys than you’d expect (making “Find Me a Primitive Man” somewhat disappointing), but this is one of her two most extensive singing roles onscreen. At Long Last Love brings Madeline as close as she ever got to the kind of lavish Hollywood musical that, had she been born a little earlier, might have been her calling card.

In the background, the movie launched Madeline’s friendships with Reynolds and with Eileen Brennan, and it brought her association with Bogdanovich to a close. That’s a shame, not least because he had planned to produce a solo record album for her, and to cast her in another musical, based on the songs of Rodgers & Hart.


As Lili von Shtupp in Blazing Saddles.

You’re not likely to read these articles if you haven’t already had your interest whetted by What’s Up, Doc?, Paper Moon, Blazing Saddles , Young Frankenstein, and Clue: the big five that have done more than any others to establish Madeline in the popular imagination. If you haven’t seen any of the Big Five, you need to catch up.

Madeline’s two other collaborations with Brooks, the Hitchcock spoof High Anxiety and History of the World, Part I, are a little less known. From a Madeline fan’s perspective, History is remarkable primarily as her final movie with Brooks, for the bawdiness of her role (crude even by his standards), and for Brooks’ belated realization (“after I saw the picture 30 times,” he says) that he “forgot to give her and Gregory Hines a musical number.”

With Hines in History.

High Anxiety contains Madeline’s most substantial role in a Brooks movie — she made such a big impression that we may forget how little screen time she has in the three other pictures, and Victoria Brisbane is also the most nuanced character he wrote for her. In one scene, she plays the most overtly Jewish character of her career before The Sisters Rosensweig (basically the wife of Brooks’ 2000 Year Old Man), and this is the only movie she made with Brooks in which she’s not the object of a penis joke. It’s worth wondering whether he wrote the role of Victoria in response to Gene Wilder’s The Adventure of Sherlock Holmes’ Smarter Brother, in which Madeline plays another damsel in distress who discovers her own heroic qualities — and true love — while solving a mystery. Unlike Wilder, however, Brooks didn’t give her a song, taking the sole musical number for himself. Trivia: High Anxiety is also the only film in which we see Madeline drive a car.

As Victoria Brisbane in High Anxiety.
Hitchcock himself praised Madeline’s performance.

Coming Soon: The Not-To-Be-Missed.

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.

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.