She was delightful in "Paper Moon" and "Blazing Saddles," then uproarious as the monster's tuneful bride in "Young Frankenstein." Yet Madeline Kahn often didn't seem to appreciate her comedic talent, even though it kept her close to the hearts of audiences for three decades.
That's just one of the many sad notes that arise from "Madeline Kahn: Being the Music, A Life," William V. Madison's well-researched and insightful biography of Kahn, once hailed by New York Times critic Vincent Canby as possibly the funniest woman in films. Imagine getting such an accolade if being funny isn't really your goal.
Performing wasn't Kahn's idea of a career anyway, at least not in the beginning. Boston-born and raised in New York City, she discovered theater at the boarding school where her self-centered mother had all but dumped her to pursue her own theatrical ambitions. The stage became little Madeline's means of self-expression, but her mother pushed voice and music lessons.
Paula Kahn was a manipulative force throughout Madeline's life. She drove away her daughter's birth father and later her adoptive father, then relied on Madeline for money. Her daughter the star seldom said no, even when Paula included bills with a birthday card or expected Madeline to finance a one-woman show to display Paula's talents, such as they were.
Madison connects Kahn's insecure childhood to her grown-up insecurities onstage and off. "As an adult, Madeline was often wary of people, and not just in the expected way of a star concerned that others will try to exploit her celebrity," he writes. "Even with close friends, she could remain guarded, and her romantic relationships were marked by varying degrees of mistrust. She balked at the idea of marriage, almost to the end of her days."
Kahn planned to go into teaching. Encouraged by her high school drama teacher, she performed a dramatic monologue as part of an audition for a drama scholarship at Hofstra College. But it was her second monologue, a comic one, that drew a response - laughter - from the professors sitting in the darkened theater.
Her voice had the range for opera, Madison writes, but even with more training it lacked the muscle needed to project in an opera house. Working in stage musicals and at the New York cabaret Upstairs at the Downstairs, Kahn drew positive reviews for sketch work and humorous songs.
She had the good fortune in the early 1970s to work with two filmmakers at their best. She appeared in Peter Bogdanovich's "What's Up, Doc?" (1972) and "Paper Moon" (1973) and in Mel Brooks' breakout hits, "Blazing Saddles" and "Young Frankenstein," both in 1974. Nominated for supporting actress Oscars for "Paper Moon" and "Blazing Saddles," she was pegged as a gifted laugh-getter.
Still, vulgar flourishes before the cameras didn't come easily to Kahn. Naturally reserved, she was bothered that people assumed she was a bawdy, slightly ditzy woman. Brooks tells Madison, "Intellectually and mentally, she was probably superior to anyone and everyone she worked with, and actually probably had to hide her brilliance a little."
She had more than her share of bad luck professionally. Appearing in the Richard Rodgers' production "Two by Two" in 1970, she watched its insecure star, Danny Kaye, pare down her role. The 1978 musical "On the Twentieth Century" was a legendary Broadway disaster for her - she left the show two months into its yearlong run at the request of the producers. Mediocre to bad movies and TV shows threatened to overwhelm her credits even as they provided money for her and her mother.
In Madison's telling, Kahn was full of anxieties when it came to performing and often lacked confidence in her own abilities. A hard worker who could rise above bland material, she performed steadily through the 1980s and 1990s. Her Tony-winning turn in "The Sisters Rosensweig" in 1993 and the little-seen indie movie "Judy Berlin" in 1999 hinted at what else she could do.
Kahn died of ovarian cancer at 57 in 1999. She never had children and married her longtime boyfriend just two months before her death, thus shielding her actors' pensions from the tax man. People who like to laugh lost a welcome presence in their lives. They will never know how much more Kahn could have given them if she'd had the chance.
Douglass K. Daniel is the author of "Tough as Nails: The Life and Films of Richard Brooks" (University of Wisconsin Press).