Monday, March 4, 2013

I Miss Madeline Kahn

This is for Oscar, my buddy.  Recently, he messaged me that a big snub regarding that Hollywood golden boy called "Oscar" is that Madeline Kahn did not get a Best Supporting Actress Academy Award nomination for her fabulousness as the controlling and annoying Eunice in the screwball comedy, What's Up, Doc?  In her 1972 feature film debut, for director Peter Bogdanovich, she made movie history as one of the few people (if not the only one) who stole scenes from superstar leading lady, Barbra Streisand.
Madeline Kahn was marvelous.  As the stiff and uptight fianceé to Ryan O'Neal's Howard Bannister, you could have hung freshly-ironed business shirts on her hairdo.
Audiences loved her.  The love affair continued.  She added two Best Supporting Actress Oscar nominations to her list of career achievements after she made her big screen debut as Eunice.  The first time I sat in a movie theater to see What's Up, Doc?, I looked at Madeline Kahn and vividly recall saying to myself, "There's that really funny actress I saw in film class!"  One of my favorite university teachers and courses was the Film as Journalism class I took.  James W. Arnold, a former newspaper film critic, taught the class.  He was terrific.  The professor taught me how to look at films in a fresh and deeper way and to discover the spirit in them.  He showed us Ingmar Bergman's The Seventh Seal and Wild Strawberries.  Then he devoted a class to short subjects.  He began by screening a parody of Ingmar Bergman classics.  It was called De Düva:  The Dove.  This 1968 short featured an unknown actress named Madeline Kahn.  Our packed 1970s college classroom howled with laughter at her comic acting.  Here's the short subject.
Kahn's star quality and extraordinary comic gifts were evident in that brief cigar-smoking role.  The Dove got an Oscar nomination for Best Live Action Short Subject.

Directors Mel Brooks and Peter Bogdanovich had the ability to distill the essence of Madeline Kahn, the same way Vincente Minnelli and George Cukor did with actress/singer Judy Garland.  One of Kahn's Oscar nominations came for her spoof of Marlene Dietrich in 1974's Blazing Saddles.  In a riff on Dietrich's sexy saloon entertainer in 1939's classic western, Destry Rides Again, Kahn was hysterically funny as Lili Von Shtupp.   Her "I'm Tired" number in Mel Brooks' western is one of the comedy high points of 1970s Hollywood movies.  Madeline Kahn was a bright screen comedienne.
Who can forget Miss Lili offering the new sheriff more schnitzengrüben for breakfast?
Not since Mae West in the 1930s had any American actress made sex so funny.  Another comedy she did for Mel Brooks was his brilliant Young Frankenstein, also in 1974.
Again, audiences erupted into laughter at her work as Elizabeth, the doctor's no-sex-before-marriage rich fianceé.  Her attitude changes when she's kidnapped by Dr. Frankenstein's gifted monster.  Kahn's operatic training came in handy here.
Her other Oscar nomination came for Peter Bogdanovich's Paper Moon.  In this 1973 hit, she was the shapely 1930s hootchie mama, Miss Trixie Delight.  She's out to use her "big tits" to hook a sugar daddy during the hard times of the Great Depression.  We laugh at this floozie carnival dancer, yet she also breaks our heart.  Trixie realizes that she doesn't have a very long expiration date.  Like Judy Holliday, Best Actress Oscar winner for Born Yesterday, the film version of Holliday's Broadway success, Kahn could have you doubled over with laughter at her ditziness and then move you with the depth of her poignant, revealing moments.  We see that so clearly in the light of Paper Moon.
Ovarian cancer took her away from us when she was only 57.  Madeline Kahn's final big screen performance graced an independent film not known by many.  But the dramatic performance is one of her best and makes you wish we could've had more time with her.  She's a woman on the verge of a nervous breakdown in the 1999 movie Judy Berlin.
Edie Falco, of TV's The Sopranos and Nurse Jackie, has the title role.  Ms. Falco is very fine indeed as the schoolteacher romantically attracted to Arthur, the school's principal.  Arthur is unhappily married to Alice.  Madeline Kahn is quite memorable and touching as Alice.  After I saw the film, hers was the performance that lingered in my heart and mind.
See it for yourself.  Judy Berlin is available on DVD.  Madeline Kahn -- what an original.


  1. This was a great post! I love Madeline Kahn, and was so sad when she died. I watched her short-lived sitcom in the 80s, and I distinctly remember a part that made me laugh a lot. Madeline's at a Chippendales-type place, and when the waiter takes her order, she says, "Yes, I would like a hunk of soup." Her delivery was so, so funny.

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    2. Same here! I tried to catch every episode of "Oh, Madeline!" that I could. I loved her style of comedy. There was no one else like her. She'd stand out even in films that weren't big hits -- like "The Adventure of Sherlock Holmes' Smarter Brother" with Gene Wilder or Bogdanovich's musical comedy, "At Long Last Love." One of my favorites -- Kahn spoofing the 1950s Hitchcock blondes in Mel Brooks' "High Anxiety." I crack up laughing at that scene where she thinks she's getting a dirty phone call and when she and Mel Brooks disguise themselves as an old Jewish couple in order to sneak past airport security. Madeline was a major talent.

  2. I'm a little disappointed that you didn't mention her in 'Clue'. She stole every scene she was in...and that was a VERY well cast movie. One of my favorites!

  3. Oh my goodness Bobby! I thought I was the only one who saw JUDY BERLIN. Way back in '99 or '00, right around the time the film was released, Shooting Gallery, a NYC based independent film studio, held a series of films showcasing the best in independent cinema from around the world. The series played at multiplexes across the country and one of the films showcased in the series was JUDY BERLIN. I had a chance to see the film - a wonderful little indie film shot in black and white. I remembered being impressed with both Kahn and Falco, and shortly after I saw the movie, I met the young man who played Falco's love interest in the film(and the principal's son) at the film festival in my city. He was there at the festival to promote another indie film he had made. Amazing that you even brought up this little obscure movie that practically no one saw.

  4. Thomas! You rock! Isn't JUDY BERLIN a good film? Not very long. Under 2 hours. And it packs a punch. Falco was so good as the lonely schoolteacher and Madeline Kahn She gave a beautiful performance in a film that deserves more attention than it got. Also, brave and wise choice to shoot the indie film in black and white. That was the perfect tone for JUDY BERLIN.


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