MJH: Mel Brooks utilized many of the same actors over and over. How did Madeline Kahn end up as one of his muses?
WVM: Madeline was co-starring in Two by Two on Broadway with Danny Kaye when she came to the attention of casting director Liam Dunn. He recommended her to Peter Bogdanovich for What’s Up, Doc? (1972). Bogdanovich in turn cast Dunn in the movie, too, as the judge in the courtroom scene, and then he recommended Madeline to Brooks — who also hired Dunn for Blazing Saddles (as Rev. Johnson, in 1974), and for Young Frankenstein (as a hapless patient, in 1975).
Right there you get a sense of a kind of repertory company forming. But as for why Madeline herself appealed to Brooks, I think it was her willingness to try anything he asked of her. At their very first meeting, he asked to see her legs. Another actor, fearing a summons to the casting couch, might have fled the room, but Madeline kept her cool and simply asked, “Why?”
“It’s a Marlene Dietrich part, and I need to see whether you have Dietrich legs,” Brooks answered. A legitimate response, so she showed him her legs.
The “open sesame” to the collaboration between Madeline and Brooks — and to that between Madeline and Gene Wilder, for that matter — is the “I’m Tired” number in Blazing Saddles, which Madeline plays to the hilt, of course, but to which she also lent her creative intelligence and some remarkably diplomatic suggestions. Seen only in cutaways, Wilder wasn’t even needed for that scene, but he remained on set to watch every take. “If your whole picture is that number,” he told Brooks, “then you’ve got a hit.”
Brooks has a reputation for absolute directorial control on the set, but when Lili goes off pitch, or tries to lean against the set and misses, it’s Madeline’s contribution. Even the introduction to the song, according to Brooks, was written at Madeline’s behest. Again, that’s highly unusual for Brooks. But I think he was willing to trust Madeline’s instincts not least because she brought him that flawless Dietrich imitation, which is the result of a lifelong immersion in Dietrich’s movies and also in Brechtian theater and Weimar culture. Brooks couldn’t have anticipated finding all of that in many other actors, but Madeline was a highly cultivated lady.
MJH: They must have worked well together. Did you come across any amusing stories about their collaborations?
WVM: Brooks told me that, during The Producers, Zero Mostel cracked up the crew so much that he was spoiling his own best takes. So Brooks went out and bought some handkerchiefs, for the purpose of (literally, to hear him tell it) stuffing them in the mouths of the crew to muffle their laughter. Brooks had let the practice drop, however, until shooting “I’m Tired,” when Madeline’s performance made it necessary again. He told me he went through a couple of crates of handkerchiefs, just for that scene, and he always kept handkerchiefs at the ready thereafter.
In terms of the personal relationships, I think it’s telling that, at perhaps the lowest ebb of her career, after an abrupt departure from the Broadway musical On the Twentieth Century in 1978, Madeline reached out to Brooks and his wife, and to one of her co-stars from the Brooks movies, Dom DeLuise and his wife: trusted friends who could make her laugh.
MJH: What is your favorite role of hers in a Mel Brooks film and why? What is your favorite line or scene?
WVM: There are so many to choose from! My favorite line may be one from the morning-after scene in Blazing Saddles. Bart has just left Lili’s boudoir, and she closes the door and sighs, “Vot a nice guy!” The tiniest moment, and yet it gives you so much of the character, both Lili’s history and the change that’s come over her.
One of her favorite scenes was the airport security scene from High Anxiety, in which she and Brooks disguise themselves as an elderly Jewish couple. For once she doesn’t have to worry about her appearance, she can draw on personal observation of neighbors back home, and she can be zany and outrageous in a way she seldom got to explore. You can see that she’s having a terrific time.
MJH: What is it about her acting that makes her so ridiculously funny?
WVM: Believe me, if I knew her secret, I’d be acting right now and not writing a book about her. But I’ve been struck from the beginning — and some of her friends and colleagues have confirmed this — that she treated a script like a piece of music. She sings her lines. This may be natural, since she had classical training beginning in early childhood and continued voice training to the end of her life.
MJH: Was Kahn among the first female comics to be able to pull off sexy, funny, and smart all at the same time?
WVM: There had been a few others, though not with the kind of exposure Madeline got, especially in the Brooks films. When I interviewed Brooks, I ventured a comparison with Carole Lombard, but Brooks insisted that Madeline brought to her work an emotional resonance that Lombard didn’t: “Madeline could move you,” he said. Of course, she got scant opportunity to move anybody in his movies, and when he remade To Be or Not to Be, he gave the Lombard role to his wife, Anne Bancroft, not to Madeline. But Brooks to this day considers her the greatest screen comedienne of all time, and I’ll happily defer to his judgment.
MJH: Do you see any glimpses of actors performing today that remind you of her?
WVM: Far be it from me to suggest that Madeline wasn’t unique, or that today’s talents aren’t unique! However, I’ve spoken to several actors and even opera singers who draw inspiration from Madeline, especially when it comes to her musicality. Classically trained performers such as Audra McDonald and Kelli O’Hara have acknowledged that inspiration, and the most obvious example someone who might qualify as a “new Madeline” is Kristin Chenoweth (with whom I haven’t spoken). I find that Chenoweth has a more modern, somewhat harder edge to her performing persona, but I do see Madeline’s influence — including in her choice of certain roles.
MJH: What attracted you to Madeline Kahn as the subject of a book?
WVM: I was watching YouTube clips of her one night, and at some point scrolled down to see the viewer comments. The universal affection that’s recorded there is extraordinary: if you look at clips of other performers, even Maria Callas or Judy Garland, you’ll find sniping and negativity. And yet for Madeline’s work there was nothing but love, every single comment, every single clip. (This was a few years ago, and it’s possible that a troll or two has left a nasty comment about her since then.) In a lot of audiences she inspired a kind of protective affection, similar to that generated by her friend (and fellow ovarian cancer casualty) Gilda Radner, and her several fan bases have this much in common: they’re smart, which means they might read a book about her.
She connects us directly to so many important figures in the culture of the second half of the 20th century: Leonard Bernstein, Bill Cosby, Mel Brooks, Lily Tomlin, Marilyn Horne, Joseph Papp, just to name a few. I never met her, although as I continue my research and interviews, I’m surprised by that: we have many cases of “one degree of separation.”
MJH: What would you like people to take away from your book?
WVM: There’s a very human story at the core of Madeline’s biography. She was this luminous spirit, and yet she was also a child of divorce, a single working woman, trying to support her family, looking for love and not always finding it, facing a lot of the pressures and challenges that all of us face on a day-to-day basis.
Frankly, too, I hope readers take away a sense of loss. Madeline died much too young, with an astounding range of possibilities ahead of her: she’d have turned 70 this year, and I believe that she might easily have become America’s answer to Maggie Smith. That’s just one possibility, but ovarian cancer deprived us of them all: a truly awful disease snuffed out a bright and singular light. So I hope readers will join me in supporting research into effective testing for ovarian cancer — and ultimately a cure.
Mel Brooks on Film: The Spoof is in the Pudding starts tomorrow night. Photo of Kahn in Blazing Saddles