Madeline Kahn, Remembered


One of the greatest actresses in the world died in 1999. She passed away very unceremoniously, very peacefully, and without any of the operatic dramatics that so surround her film career. She exuded life, and to this day her performances are celebrated as some of the greatest in comedy history, performances that showed the world just how amazing and full of life she really was.

Her name was Madeline Kahn.

Actress Madeline Kahn (1980's)

My introduction toMadeline was in 2003 when I bought my first ever DVD. I had persuaded my father to buy a DVD player specifically so I could buy this DVD. It was a film called “Murder by Death” which is a farcical murder mystery starring Maggie Smith, Peter Sellers and David Niven to name a few. I had remembered watching the film when I was just a child, and wanted to relive the memories, but the film was only available on DVD – something that the purely VHS based Petrie household was completely out of touch with. So, with thanks to “Murder by Death” we were able to move into the 21st Century.

I loved the film so much, and watched it so many times, that I just had to go out and buy the sequel – a similar farcical murder mystery called “The Cheap Detective”. Unfortunately this film was only available on American DVD, with a completely different Region code and compatibility to contend with – something my thirteen year old brain was finding it hard to comprehend. So I had to persuade my dad to go out and purchase another DVD player, but this time make sure it was multi-region compatible.

Anyway, I ordered the film, my dad bought the multi-region DVD player and lo and behold the sequel wasn’t as good as the first film. What a shocker. However, there was one thing in the sequel that made it all the better for watching. A character by the name of Mrs. Montenegro. She was a funny character, who stole the entire film and that was thanks purely to the actress who played her – namely Madeline Kahn. And from that moment I have adored the work of this fantastic woman.

As I do with every actor or actress I come across who I admire the work of, I went out and tried to purchase as much of Madeline’s work as humanly possible. I remember distinctly going to HMV with my parents and using my pocket money to buy Mel Brooks’ “Young Frankenstein” – a film my dad said he could remember seeing when it came out at the cinema. My parents thought I was very odd – if only they knew I was only buying the film because Madeline was in it. And now there are eleven films in my DVD collection that have been bought purely because Madeline Kahn starred in them.

It is sad that it was four years after her death that I came across Madeline, in fact it took me a while to even discover she had died in 1999 after I came across her. Little did I know in 1998 when I was nine and went to the cinema to see “A Bug’s Life” that I was watching (or hearing) one of Madeline’s last performances. As the sultry and comedic gypsy moth, Madeline lent her always operatic and high pitched voice to the role at a time when she was on the verge of being diagnosed with ovarian cancer.

In January of 1999 Madeline was diagnosed with her fate, but she went on to give one last performance – one, which many, believe to be her most perfected and astounding performances. Madeline was never one for dramatic roles, sticking primarily to comedy in her movies. However early on in her film career she was nominated for her first Academy Award for “Paper Moon” in 1973 – a film that was most definitely a drama… After that she became Mel Brooks’ muse, and starred in many of his films from the 70s and 80s – always churning out terrific comedic performances and one never the same as the other…

I strived for many years to purchase Madeline’s last film, “Judy Berlin”. But the film was an independent film, and because it was Madeline’s last performance it is a very coveted and rare DVD to get hold of. Add to that the fact the film never goes under the same title in two different places. In America the film is known as “Judy Berlin”, but everywhere else it is known as “Babylon, USA”. Tracking down a copy of the DVD, and a copy that wasn’t over $100, was a very difficult task, indeed if you look on Amazon now you will find copies selling for £86. But eventually I discovered a copy on Amazon and purchased it right away.

After watching the film I felt nothing but elated. Seldom in life can you use that word to describe how you feel, but I actually felt elated. I felt lifted and I felt I had viewed a truly independently made film that was truly beautiful. And one of the most powerful performances, if not the most important performance in the entire film comes from Madeline Kahn.

MK-madelinekahn-judyberlin-helloAbove: Madeline as Alice Gold in “Judy Berlin”

The entire film evolves around different residents of the American midwestern town of Babylon during a total eclipse of the sun. During Madeline’s film arc she wakes up as a typical housewife, who’s husband is the local school headmaster, who is having an affair with the English teacher, which she finds out at the end of the film after spending a lovely “eclipse day” at home with her housekeeper. The whole film’s storyline seems completely implausible and completely quirky but what independent film isn’t? And it’s thanks to the film’s storyline and the amazing performances that make it the epitome of fine film writing and directing. I don’t know if it was because Madeline knew she was dying, or if she was truly just an amazing actress (or perhaps a bit of both) but it is no wonder that her final film is such a rarity and a coveted piece of film.

I can’t remember if I cried or not when I first watched the film – knowing me it’s no surprise. But literally it is a wonderful film. You do need to be in the right mindset and in the right frame of mind to watch and enjoy the film. It isn’t your typical film (but neither is most independent film) but that’s what makes it all the more special.


R.I.P Madeline Kahn. 1942 -1999