The HollywoodBitchslap/EFilmCritic Hall of Fame #10

By Matt Bartley
Posted 05/30/07 04:32:36

Welcome to the Hollywood Bitchslap Hall of Fame. This is the place where, we, the critics of this site induct a person - be they actor, actress, director or other - into our own Hall of Fame for their outstanding contribution to the cinema that we know and love. The criteria is simple: we are not bound by volume or era, so anyone from the 1920s to the present day, anyone with a career of 80 films or 8 films can be inducted. All we ask is one thing: that they have provided we critics, who are film lovers above all else, another reason to keep going to the cinema week after week.

This month's inductee - Madeline Kahn

It's a commonly acknowledged fact that for comic actors to get their due and critical respect, they have to turn serious. No-one took Jim Carrey seriously until he did Man on the Moon and Jack Lemmon didn't win his Best Actor Oscar for The Odd Couple or Some Like it Hot, but for Save the Tiger instead. This is a trend that is doubly worse for comic actresses, as they are given even less due for the genre that they specialise in. Serious actresses are revered, but comic actresses are dismissed unless you happen to look like Cameron Diaz, in which case the ability to put semen in your hair is the pinnacle of comic timing. This makes Madeline Kahn all the more of a treasure then. Not just because her sad and untimely death left us with only a relatively small list of films to remember her by, but also because she was undoubtedly the finest comic actress of her generation, if not the finest comic actress we've ever seen in American film.

As our own David Cornelius says, "Looking her up on IMDB, I'm a bit amazed at how little film work she's done. It says a lot about someone who's made so few movies yet has grown so much in our hearts". Indeed, and when she did pass away our critic Scott Weinberg was compelled to write this feature in her honour, a feature not granted to every Hollywood legend that passes on.

So what is it about her that endears her to us so much? Part of Kahn's appeal is the fact that her comic talent contains a lot of range within itself, a skill very rarely seen. Sure, we all know her primarily through her work with Mel Brook's spoofs, but she could take her humour in more subtle, nuanced directions too. Doug Bentin notes that she's the only thing that makes What's Up Doc? still watchable, while Peter Soncynzski states, "Granted, it wasn't a comedy but she was also pretty impressive as Martha Mitchell in "Nixon". You should also be sure to drop some love for "At Long Last Love"--the film sucks but she is pretty amusing in it".

And that is why she lingers on as much as she does. She is that rare breed of artist who is able to elevate herself above any material, no matter how poor, to make her performance seem effortlessly enjoyable. But let's not sidetracked here by the notion that she was only good by default in poor offerings: she did a hell of a lot of good work in great films. Paul Bryant notes her hilarious turn in his Paper Moon review, and Natasha Theobald also has fond memories of Kahn: "I must bring up her great, great scene in History of the World: Part I, when she is selecting her companions for the evening. You have got to love Empress Nympho. The looks on her face and the tone of her voice with the "Yes, Yes, Yes." That performance is a thing of great beauty and a true lust for life.

The thing I find true of her, generally, is that she combines great comedy with an equal part of humanity. There was a lot of joy in her performances. She was never mean-spirited about being funny, always laughing with you rather than at you. There was something about her that was deeply endearing beyond the funny, a quality of openness and a casual, natural beauty. I think she was the type of performer that people mourned in losing her as much as any character. She really is one of my favorites".

Natasha totally nails Kahn's appeal there. Lesser comic actors do nothing but mug, grin and pratfall frantically trying to get your attention, but Kahn never does. She has an ease and a grace to any comic role and sells it to you as a character, and not just a conveyor belt of punchlines. A great example of this is her performance in Young Frankenstein. From her brittle love interest for Gene Wilder ("Taffeta darling. No, the dress is taffeta...") to the sexually awakened lover of the Monster ("Where you going?... Oh, you men are all alike. Seven or eight quick ones and then you're out with the boys to boast and brag. YOU BETTER KEEP YOUR MOUTH SHUT. Oh... I think I love him."), she makes any line memorable and instantly quoteable. But she also has the uncanny knack of making her lines not seeming like jokes, but the actual speech that would come out of characters mouths. As well as Paper Moon she picked up an Oscar nomination for Blazing Saddles and it's worth noting just how she owned every line and every scene she was given there, such as "Is that a ten-gallon hat, or are you just enjoying the show?" and "A wed wose, how womantic". It's a role that our critic Ryan Arthur in particular enjoys: "Still, though, any discussion of Madeline Kahn's comedic brilliance begins and ends with her partnership with Mel Brooks. She's so great in Blazing Saddles, Young Frankenstein, History of the World, Part I, High Anxiety...

I mean, c'mon: Lili Von Shtupp, aside from being one of the best character names ever, is sexy and funny in a way that a lot of actresses just can't get these days ("then get you'we fwigging feet off the stage!").

Man, I miss her."

And that's precisely the appeal of Kahn - someone we felt we knew, and someone we miss a hell of a lot still. Mel Brooks' output may be varied to say the least, but Kahn never failed to hit the mark in any of them as Erik Childress points out: "Certainly her work with Mel Brooks will always be her most remembered, so in that respect I'd also mention High Anxiety, particularly her introductory heavy breathing scene and the one where she's listening to Brooks getting strangled on the phone; first thinking its a pervert and then getting turned on. (Jeans? You're wearing jeans?)".

What's also interesting about Kahn is that she could combine sexy with funny, but in an unusual way. Nowhere near a blonde bombshell, she nevertheless brought a sexy charge to her roles with her darting eyes and mischieveous mouth. It's an effect also fely by Marc Kandel, "I loved her look juxtaposed against her inherent humor- she has that severe forehead, those wide stabbing eyes, this woman at a glance looks like she could chew you up and spit you out (a la Lily Von Schtup). But despite her seeming viciousness in some of her roles, she never plays it cruel and knows that the looks only open the door for her to surprise you with how well she can deliver the yuks.

I will say she also makes a very funny "straight man" to Mel Brooks' manic Scotty in "High Anxiety" making for a very amusing damsel in dis dress. "

One thing is clear though: on this forum, it's not her work with Brooks that has endeared her above all else. Instead, it's her work in an oft-neglected comic gem - Clue. Cited by both David Cornelius and Erik Childress as a favourite performance of hers, it's one that also has happy memories for Alexandre Paquin: "I have always had a special place in my heart for "Clue", which I am almost ashamed to admit was once my favourite film (back in the late eighties). In addition, I think the film is essential to understanding Madeline Kahn's brand of humor, because every actor in it is delivering a performance in a style similar to what made Madeline Kahn funny -- deadpan. All the characters look, if you'll excuse the pun, clueless. She mastered the art of speaking a line in a fashion that made it sound funny: "Being killed is pretty final, wouldn't you saaaaay?" I sometimes tend to consider her the female equivalent of Leslie Nielsen in terms of level of mastery of deadpan comedy".

It's a film that also inspires a lot of love from Ryan Arthur: "Growing up, Clue was my absolute favorite movie. Still is among my favorites. The entire cast is great, but Kahn's fantastic as Mrs. White. The description of her hatred of Yvette ("Yes, I did it, I killed Yvette. I hated her, *so* much... That... it... it... flam - flames. Flames, on the side of my face, heathing... breathle - , heathing breaths. Heathing breath...") is one of my favorite quotes. And most of her dialogue is quotable - not because of the writing, but her delivery. The "Yes, just the five. Husbands should be like Kleenex: soft strong and disposable." "You lure men to their deaths like a spider with flies." "Flies are where men are most vulnerable." exchange with Martin Mull is outstanding."

Everyone indeed is on top form in Clue, but it is probably the definitive Kahn performance for all the qualities that Alex notes and for all the lines that Ryan recalls (telling indeed that the 'flames' line - one of the funniest in the film - was improvised by Kahn. Only truly great comics can nail improv like that). From the moment she totters into the film, petite, chalk white and with an eerie stillness, we're aware that this one of the greatest comic actresses giving one of her greatest comic performances. It's perhaps fruitless to indulge in speculation and rumour, but it's worth noting Peter Sobcynzski's tale of how Kahn fell out with Lucille Ball (probably the only actress capable of challenging Kahn for the title of America's greatest comedienne) during the making of Mame: "From what I recall, Kahn was cast as Agnes Gooch because of her Broadway credentials. However, the film was meant to be a showcase for Lucille Ball and Lucy's singing and dancing skills--never that strong to begin with--had not improved with age. Apparently they didn't get along and since Ball was the star, the story is that she had Kahn fired and replaced with a pal who wouldn't completely upstage her". But it's Madeline Kahn - how could Ball fail to be upstaged?

From her little known but still admired turns in indie fare such as Judy Berlin to her justly acknowledged Mel Brooks output and to the cult favourite, Clue no other actress has given us as many revered and hilarious performances. The sad thing is, there were just far too few and she is someone we still miss today.

Madeline Kahn - we salute you.

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