After Dark Magazine, July 1973
"I'm sooo nervous!" Madeline Kahn says, sitting up straight and alert in her East Side apartment, while explaining that she's never done one of these this-is-your-life-at-home interviews. "I don't know what to say, what to do," she wails. "You're not going to just set me up and then rape me? Are you?"
It seems that last year her friend and movie playmate, Ryan O'Neal, let a writer from Esquire into his home at Malibu, and for his hospitality Ryan got the old shiv in print. "Ryan opened his life to that guy," Madeline says wide-eyed. "He let him see how he lived, who his friends were, and the guy butchered him on paper. That kind of gives you pause, don't you think?"
On paper Madeline Kahn is a cherub. She is candid and bright; she is eager to be liked and understood; and at this incubative stage in her shining career, only a cad would attack her -- in print. Out of print, live and in person, well... that's another angle. On a warm night, with the shades up, she could have her own Rapist's Union lurking in doorways along the street where she lives. Because she's got this build, "stacked, fore and aft," as Mickey Spillane would say, and the Good Lord has also been kind to her above the neck -- bestowing pounds of golden hair ("It's all mine -- the hair, not the color"), big luminous brown-velvet eyes, and a luscious red mouth comparable to Peggy Lee's, complete with pout ("You mean Peggy Lee when she was younger, right?"). Yes, up close, Madeline is ripe as rape bait; but a word of warning to all the night jumpers -- she's also got this built-in alarm: one rough touch and her voice goes off like an adenoidal siren, capable of shattering bulletproof glass 100 miles away.
"I think it's great that you wouldn't recognize me from my movies," she says with a timid smile. "I hated the way I looked as Eunice in What's Up, Doc? She was so drab -- those awful clothes and that wig. And Trixie Delight (in Paper Moon) had a lot of flash, but that wasn't me. I find it very hard to watch myself in movies. I can laugh at the funny parts, but the real parts knock me out. I just did a movie with Mel Brooks. It's a Western called Black Bart. In it I play a saloon singer -- she's German -- her name is Lily Von Shtupp -- that's why my hair is blonde. The movie is hilarious. Harvey Korman, Gene Wilder, and Cleavon Little are in it. The language is absolutely filthy. They say things like 'up...' OHMIGOD! Why am I telling you this? Everyone will think I am dirty. Please, can we talk about something else -- something my mother can show her friends?"
Madeline was born in Boston. "I'm a Virgo, and I'd tell you the year but then the casting agents would know my age and... well, you know." Her father and mother were divorced when she was two and her mother remarried ("Kahn is my second father's name."), and the family moved to Queens. "I had a very normal childhood. I wasn't one of those kids who tap-danced all over the neighborhood. I liked to perform, but not in front of company. I had this friend, Jimmy. He and I used to sing together and we were picked to appear on Horn and Hardart's Children's Hour. We sang 'Cool Water.' Do you believe that? They liked us and invited us back. The second time I got nervous. I saw all these kids in the wings, little savages, kicking and pushing each other out of the way. I got scared and started to cry, right there on camera. Needless to say they never invited us on again.
"When I graduated from high school I was pushed by my mother and my drama teacher into trying out for a performer's scholarship to Hofstra University. I recited a piece by Saroyan and a monologue by Ruth Draper, and they gave me the scholarship to Hofstra University. I was amazed. But I never thought of making performing my life. That's why I got my B.A. in speech therapy. I had planned on getting my M.A. also, but at graduation I fell into a fit of depression. At that point I knew I wanted to be an actress. I knew I had to at least try it, but I was terrified. I thought I wasn't pretty enough, talented enough, all the usual insecurities that a lot of people have."
Forgetting her assumed handicaps, Madeline got a job as a stein-singer in a German restaurant. By night she served beer and sang the best of The Student Prince, and by day she made the rounds of the open calls. "The following summer I got into the Green Mansions. They let me sing and act and do some comedy. That led to an audition at The Upstairs at the Downstairs, where I stayed two years. I learned so much there. Fannie Flagg and Lily Tomlin were also in the revues and a lot of people came to see us. Then I got my first Broadway show, How Now, Dow Jones, and subsequently I nearly quit the business forever."
She was signed as the third female lead in Dow Jones. "Brenda Vaccaro and Marlyn Mason were the two funny ladies and I played this extraneous nurse. I really didn't know why they needed me. I had nothing to do. But David Merrick kept saying I was great and that he would build the part up. So I relaxed and did my job. Then on the last night out of town, when everyone is packing and looking forward to opening in New York, this messenger came to my dressing room and handed me an envelope. I jokingly said: "What's this -- a pink slip?" And that's what it was. It was pink and it was a slip saying, 'Services no longer required.' I couldn't speak. My heart stopped. I thought it was so rotten, not because I was let go, but because of the way it was done. No one spoke to me, no director, no producer, but a messenger? So, anyway, I tipped the kid, packed my bags, and crept back to New York. I stayed in my apartment, crying for days. I wouldn't even answer the phone."
When she did pick up the phone she found Leonard Sillman on the other end, offering her one of the leads in New Faces of '68. "If I had been in How Now, Dow Jones, I wouldn't have been able to do New Faces, so it all turned out for the best. New Faces was a much bigger part and that led to my doing Candide at Lincoln Center. Now, that's a story..."
The doorbell interrupts Madeline. She short-steps her way across the room to answer it. In high heels she walks like a cocktail waitress, the kind you see at bowling alleys. When they walk you hear honky-tonk music. If Madeline weren't so refined you'd expect her to crack gum and say things like, "Jeez," "Yeah," and "Whadleyahave, toots?" She places some photographs from Paper Moon on the coffee table. "I don't understand this," she says, enunciating each syllable, breaking illusions. "These are the stills from the movie, but I look different, don't I?"
Uh-huh. She looks much better in person.
"I don't mean in-person, I mean in the movie. This is not the way Trixie looks on the screen. Maybe it's the actual movie lights -- they're not your beauty lighting -- I squint a lot. But then again I look entirely different in Black Bart. That's why you don't recognize me. I don't have one look. That's terrible, isn't it?"
Well, no. Not if she wants to keep on working. Think of the range she can run. From Trixie Delight to Madame Bovary.
"Yes! I never thought of that. You're right, it would help in the movies. Where were we? Oh, yes, New Faces. After that I did Candide. Hey, wait a minute. Madame Bovary? Who was she? Was she a nice lady?"
Madeline, relaxed, picks up her own interview and throws it back and forth with shrieks of laughter and bits and pieces of songs played on her living room piano. "I love all that trash from the fifties -- "Tears on My Pillow" and "In the Still of the Night" -- real garbage, but oh, did we suffer through it.
"Candide was only a one-night affair, but it was very important to me. It came about when Roger Englander called and said they were giving this birthday party for Leonard Bernstein, at Lincoln Center. And I thought, 'Well, how nice.' He asked if I'd be interested in auditioning for Candide and I passed out holding the phone. I absolutely adored that part. I loved the music. But I didn't think I could sing it. I wasn't that kind of singer. I never studied singing until I was nineteen. But I went along with his idea and went to the audition, which was being held in someone's apartment. That was panic time. There were all these potential divas warming up in the corners. It drives me crazy when some petite singer steps up and lets off a high C right in your face. I die. At the audition I made sure I went on last. Then this German girl stood next to me, criticizing everyone who went on. She'd say, 'Ach, but this is not correct. She vill never finish. She is not using the voice correctly.' And I thought, 'Ohmigod, this girl is going to be brilliant and I'll follow and make a fool of myself.' So I decided to go home. As I was leaving, the Fraulein got up to sing and you'll never believe what happened."
"You ran across the room, jumped on the piano and did a Helen Morgan impression?"
"Huh?... (a shriek)... Oh, God... that's what I should have done. She was the worst I ever heard. She couldn't sing and her pianist couldn't even play the piano. Can you imagine? After all that? And I thought, well, that's terrific. I loved her attitude. To be so bad and to act like she was great. If I could have some of that attitude -- you know? Anyway, I was next and they gave me the part. It was only for one night, but I loved doing it."
She first met Peter Bogdanovich when she was auditioned for a movie. "That was in 1971. He had just done The Last Picture Show and I was appearing on Broadway in Two by Two, with Danny Kaye. I went to see Peter and he said, 'Well, tell me about yourself.' One of those openers. So I told him about myself; we laughed and joked and he said he was going to make a movie called What's Up, Doc? Well, I thought that was a pretty tasteless title and I wasn't ready to do a bad movie. I had just landed on Broadway, finally, and I didn't want to cancel myself out by doing a tasteless film. A lousy movie, especially if it's your first, can kill you. But then I read the script and I knew it would be good, and working with Ryan and Barbra couldn't hurt. I was a little apprehensive about Barbra. I had heard that a lot of performers wound up on the cutting-room floor in her movies, but I figured we're both Jewish, we're both from New York, I sing and she sings -- so why be scared? And Peter had control. So I made What's Up, Doc? and I was very happy with the results. When it opened at Radio City I used to go there every day just to see the people's reactions. I loved it. I could have sold programs in the lobby -- no one knew me from Eunice."
Madeline never expected to make another movie. That's why she brought half of Warner's back lot home with her. "This is the top of my canvas chair from the movie, and that's my parking-lot plate framed on the wall. I took everything that had my name on it because I thought I wouldn't be back in Hollywood for a long time. Then when Peter called me for Paper Moon, I ran to Kansas."
Her part in Paper Moon totals no more than fifteen minutes, but her performance lingers for weeks. As Trixie Delight, a carnival dancer who moonlights on the side with her body, Madeline deftly shifts the spotlight from young Tatum O'Neal everytime she sashays on and off the screen. "Trixie was such a good part. She had shine all on her own. Personally, I've never known anyone like her, but I had similar feelings to situations, and if you use them you can bring the part home. She was a victim of the Depression, and she had to hustle to survive. She reminded me a lot of Blanche in Streetcar -- trying to be genteel and clinging to airs when she was down on her luck. I don't know if Trixie was from the South. She said things like, 'When I danced in Tuscaloosa,' but some of those lines I couldn't say without using a Southern accent."
One of Trixie's lines was greeted with loud yucks the night I saw Paper Moon. Everyone laughed, but a few seconds later, upon digestion, the line tore at your guts.
"I know what you mean," Madeline says softly. "It's the one about her big tits, right? God, that moment killed me. First of all, I don't find things like that easy to say. And it wasn't in the original script. Look, I've got the script right here under the table. I'll show you. Trixie and Addie (Tatum) are standing on that hill in Kansas and she's pleading with the kid not to wipe her out with Ryan. Trixie says: 'I'm gonna level with ya, okay? Even if I want a fella, sometimes I manage to git it screwed up. Maybe I'll get a pair of shoes, a nice dress, a few laughs -- times are hard. Now if you fool around on this hill up here, then I don't get nothing, you don't get nothing, and he don't get nothing. So how about it, honey? For just a little while, let old Trixie sit up front, with her big tits.'
"As you can see, those words are not in this script. When we were rehearsing Peter suggested I put that line in and I got all flustered. I just couldn't say it. Then Tatum piped up and said, 'Why not say knockers?' Can you imagine? That little kid. Oh, she's a killer. I loved her. She's just as direct and disarming as she is in the movie. She and P.J. Johnson, the girl who plays my maid, never acted before. And they're sensational.
"The whole movie was a trip -- eccch, I hate those words -- but that's what it was. Peter is always in good humor on the set. Underneath he may be having his own personal war, but when he directs he calms you and lets you be."
Madeline is also very enthusiastic about Mel Brooks, the director of her first dirty movie. "Aieee, please," she gasps, "Black Bart is not a dirty movie. Well, the language may be dirty, but it's not a porno film. You're going to kill me. I know it. I'll tell you what. I'll play a record for you. It's a song I do in the saloon."
Madeline gets up and puts on a demo single, and the next voice we hear is Marlene Dietrich singing against some thirties nightclub music. "That's not Marlene," Madeline says with a Cinemascope smile. "That's me. That's Lily Von Schtupp. She's very Destry. She wears a blue pin-striped suit with a bowler hat. They couldn't get away with the tuxedo, I guess. Lily is singing this song to the cowboys in the saloon. She walks through the audience and says things like, 'Hallo, cowboy, is that a ten-gallon hat on your lap, or are you just enjoying the show?' And she moves on, singing 'I'm tired, so tired. I've had thousands of men again and again, they jump on your belly and bust your balloon.' She walks back to the stage, a drunken cowboy follows her, he wrestles with her, she kicks him in the balls, he falls off, and she keeps on singing, 'Tired, tired of playing the game, ain't it a frigging shame, let's face it, everything below the waist is kaput!'
"Now I ask you, how are they going to get away with that? My part isn't too bad, but the men? Harvey Korman and Gene Wilder keep saying things like, 'Oh, blow it out your ass, cowboy.' It's hysterical. I hope they won't cut it to shreds. Mel is so brilliant and worked so hard on this. And I love Lily. She's a little gem."
Another gem, one that got away, was Agnes Gooch in the movie version of Mame. Madeline was signed for it, she rehearsed for it, and then she was bounced, reportedly by Mame herself, Lucille Ball. "Well, that happened before Black Bart and I don't think it's a good idea to go into it all now. It might sound like sour grapes.
"It's true I was signed for the part, by the producers. They wanted to go with something different for Agnes. They wanted a more contemporary approach, and then Lucy got wind of what they were doing. She didn't want some young, fresh interpretation. She wanted what Jane Connell did on the stage. Well, I don't look like Jane and I don't act like Jane, so they got Jane. Lucy is the star, she's a very strong lady, she had the last word. Wait till you see her. She looks fabulous as Mame. I don't know how they did it. In person, she looks like a 103-year-old chorus girl, but in the movie she looks thirty-five.
"Losing a role, no matter how secure you are in your craft, still hurts. I felt bad about Mame, but I didn't take it personally. You put it all in its proper perspective as you get older. Like with critics. Their opinion used to be very important to me. It still is, but I've learned to remember that I work for the director. Of course, it hurts to read in print that somebody thought you were lousy in such and such a performance, but if I go back to what my director thought, if he liked my performance, then I keep that filed on top of my mind.
"What other jobs are coming up? Well, there's a lot of talk of this and that, but nothing definite. There's a Broadway show, but I can't name it because we haven't signed anything yet. There's also a TV special of Trouble in Tahiti, to be made in London, but I've got to sing for Leonard Bernstein again, and he may not like me. I'm studying voice with a coach called Wolfgang. How do you like that? 'Wolfgang, I'd like you to meet Lily Von Schtupp.' If he only knew, he'd probably have a fit. I've got a marvelous acting teacher; his name is Warren Robertson. He taught me everything I know about acting for film. So, please, mention his name if you decide to do this story."
Decide? The story is done, the sun has gone down, the interview is over.
"Over? But I haven't said anything of real importance. They'll be bored. Maybe you can make some things up? I won't mind, as long as you're kind. You can use photographs. I'll give you some. They'll fill up the holes. That's it, you can list some of the good things I've done and put a photo with it. Okay?"
No way. This is a magazine, not a Sears and Roebuck catalog. There's not room enough for all the good things.