On my 37th night in quarantine, I stayed awake until 4 a.m. watching Madeline Kahn videos on YouTube. Around midnight, I had scrolled past an Instagram post from Hilton Als lauding Kahn’s inimitable Paper Moon monologue, and upon double tapping, realized she was someone I’d always loved despite only really knowing her greatest hits. I couldn’t sleep and time isn’t real in quarantine anyway; one video led to another, and swiftly down the rabbit hole I fell.
I revisited that scene from Paper Moon, along with all the other old favorites I had discovered as a teenager who spent more time watching original cast episodes of Saturday Night Live and taping films off TCM than I did on my homework. Kahn’s proverbial Greatest Hits Album is bountiful: The sleepover sketch from her first stint hosting SNL. “I’m Tired.” “Flames on the side of my face.” Her (definitive, in my opinion) rendition of Sondheim’s “(Not) Getting Married Today” from Company. Rewatching them reminded me how, years ago, I thought Kahn was just so fucking cool, and how I aspired to be as seemingly effortlessly charming and funny as her, instead of what I was, which was acutely anxious and insecure. But I wanted to go deeper and discover more. I spiraled from a moving cover of “Bewitched, Bothered, and Bewildered” into a Burns and Allen routine with George Burns himself, from the forgotten Bogdanovich film At Long Last Love to an appearance on a PBS airing of the Metropolitan Opera Quiz (honestly, pop culture peaked).
Near the end of the night, I stumbled across a scene from Kahn’s final film, a black-and-white indie I hadn’t heard of before, Judy Berlin. In a scant one minute and 33 nearly-silent seconds, I realized it was radically unlike anything of hers I had ever seen before. I was hooked.
“My experience of my own self is that I’m very smart. I’m very understanding. I’m serious. I always see, sort of, the tragedy beneath what’s funny. And that’s only important to me.”
– Madeline Kahn, 1996
A few years ago, a Little Britain sketch parodying Shirley Bassey and Tom Jones went viral. In it, an interviewer throws out names of fellow singers, prompting Bassey for rapidfire takes. Sheryl Crow, Paul McCartney, Shirley Manson, Gladys Knight—“She doesn’t have the range!” Bassey asserts of each. Not even Shirley Bassey herself has the range. “I’m sorry, Shirley,” she says. “I love her to bits, but she doesn’t have the range.”
“She doesn’t have the range” became a shortcut to neg on stars, a way to acknowledge that they might be great performers, but they just don’t have the range. Since its first appearance, it hasn’t really died the way most memes frequently do, it’s just mutated (see: the Hollywood actor version that popped up on Twitter this winter). Range, after all, has more than one meaning. It applies to musical abilities, yes, but range also means talent, skill, versatility.
Hollywood is full of accomplished and talented stars, but when you pull back, many of them are really only actually very good at one particular thing. Few—particularly now, decades after the Old Hollywood era where triple-threat performers were the norm—can knock it out of the park across a variety of roles, genres, and mediums. Not many stars really have the range. Not even Tom Hanks—great guy, I love him, but, I am sorry to say, he always plays a version of Tom Hanks—has the range. When you find ones who do, it’s explicable as nothing other than magic. How else could one person not only contain such multitudes, but be good at all of them?
Madeline Kahn had the range. Literally, in Shirley Bassey’s sense: Operatically trained, Kahn started her career in musicals and vocal concert performances, and entertained numerous invitations from American opera companies over the years. But Madeline Kahn also had the range, with a three-decade-long career that spanned sketch comedy, music, theatre, television, and film—and she was a master of them all. Mel Brooks, who directed her in some of her best-known roles, once said, “She is one of the most talented people that ever lived. I mean, either in stand-up comedy, or acting, or whatever you want, you can’t beat Madeline Kahn.”
After a scene-stealing film debut in Peter Bogdanovich’s What’s Up, Doc?, Kahn went on to garner back-to-back Oscar nominations for her performances as a gold-digging Depression-era exotic dancer in Paper Moon and a Marlene Dietrich-type saloon singer in Brooks’ Blazing Saddles. Kahn filled the mid-‘70s with her most iconic roles, collaborating more with Brooks on Young Frankenstein and High Anxiety and with Gene Wilder on The Adventure of Sherlock Holmes’ Smarter Brother. She made memorable appearances on Saturday Night Live and The Carol Burnett Show, and hosted episodes of The Muppet Show and Sesame Street. The common thread to all of the performances she rose to stardom with and is remembered for: comedy.
To be clear: Madeline Kahn was very, very funny. But she worked hard at it. She didn’t think she was naturally funny—and she didn’t always want to be.
Kahn, like many comedians, knew she was capable of dramatic work, and spent much of her career chasing fleshier parts, but they just weren’t there. Producers and casting agents—and audiences, at times, too—couldn’t see her past much more than a funny, beautiful woman who happened to be able to sing well. From the very start, Kahn resented this, going so far as to leave Hofstra University’s theater program for its music department in protest over being cast in one too many “saucy wench” parts. In Hollywood, the typecasting only got worse. A string of early hits were a boon and ball and chain: they made her famous, but they also cemented a type for which subsequent offers would try to play to, often with diminishing results. In a 1980 interview, Kahn hoped that “one lucky day, I’ll get to play an ordinary person. I’ve never been the ingenue type, so I’ve always felt that the so-called serious roles would happen for me later, that I’d make the best use of my naturalistic acting abilities when I became an older, more mature woman.”
Over the years, audiences were only ever granted sporadic glimpses of her range. A few “so-called serious” roles did pop up, mostly in theater, but they were few and far between, especially—contrary to her hopes—as she got older. Money was often a concern; Kahn had not only her own bills to pay, but a manipulative, unstable mother to support, as well. She couldn’t afford to sit around and wait for the kinds of parts that would help her climb out from the pigeonhole she had been stuffed into. This meant booking bad films and television shows—sometimes appallingly bad movies and TV shows—for parts that offered a paycheck but little more substance than a post-Weekend Update SNL sketch. She even, as the flops began to outnumber the hits, resorted to shooting commercials for, uh, beef. (The vast majority of the 1980s were not kind to Madeline; just search YouTube for her failed sitcom Oh Madeline or the Jerry Lewis vehicle Slapstick of Another Kind. Actually, maybe don’t.)
Somehow, though, Kahn almost always managed to be at the top of her game; you can sit through (or, well, fast-forward through) some of the worst things just for her shining performances alone. Her method of comedy was to find the drama underneath it all, to understand and take seriously even the most ridiculous of characters. In many ways, it not only worked, but saved her time and time again. “I’ve escaped scathing notices in some very bad films,” she once noted. “I have escaped. I floated away, you know, in some really bad films.”
Still, taking part in box office bombs added to her already numerous insecurities. Kahn lacked confidence, and her anxieties ran deep. Portraying Eunice Burns was as traumatic as it was career-launching; the experience drove her into therapy, distraught that audiences were laughing at her, not the character, and convinced they thought she was a frumpy, obnoxious woman capable of driving away Ryan O’Neal. Being written off as just a funny girl only compounded these worries. For much of her career, Kahn was bothered by people confusing her with her bawdy, ditzy characters rather than seeing the reserved, well-mannered woman who played them.
No better is this seen than in an uncomfortable exchange with Charlie Rose in 1993, when Kahn appeared as a guest on his show with the cast of The Sisters Rosensweig, the Wendy Wasserstein play for which she won her first Tony. It was a role she relished for its contrast to much of her previous work because its underlying depth allowed her “to go as far as I could go.” By then, Kahn had been a staple of stage and screen for 25 years. Still, some, like Rose, were caught off guard by her shy, guarded demeanor.
Rose: You seem to be so restrained.
Robert Klein: She’s a very shy person.
Rose: I don’t know [you] very well, but you seem to be sort of—maybe it’s because I’m influenced by all the characters you’ve played.
Kahn: Oh, totally. I’m nothing like them.
Rose: You’re none of those characters. You are? How are you different? You’re what? Restrained? And…serious?
Kahn: Bob, why don’t you tell him?
Robert Klein: Let me speak for her. It was not easy to create Von Shtupp and those parts that she did for Mel Brooks. That all took work and concentration…She works very hard. She works very hard.
Kahn: I do. I have done some very broad comedy and this, as I say, I like this because it has far more dimension than many roles I’ve done. But I do treat everything I’ve done just as though it was totally serious, and that’s what I enjoy doing. So people are sometimes surprised when I’m not like the roles.
Rose: See, I would never assume that you didn’t treat it totally serious. I’m just saying that you just seem very proper tonight.
Kahn: Would you say I’m very proper? I am?
Klein: No, [Charlie is] fooled by the persona of [the character, and] a good body of her brilliant work.
Three years later, in a separate interview with Rose, he asked her to address these misconceptions. Choosing her words carefully, she replied that she was glad to finally see that more people understood that she was an actress, and not “a kook.” But the self-consciousness lingered, as if the small, hard-won change hadn’t really registered. As Rose moved on to the next question, she asked sheepishly: “I wish you would answer that. How am I perceived?”
At the time, Kahn was on the upswing after an extended string of career disappointments. Fresh off her success with Rosensweig, she had a standout supporting role in the sitcom Cosby (I know) that caught critics’ attention. But a dramatic film that would show just how much she could do, the thing she had spent her life waiting for, would not come until 1999’s Judy Berlin. It’s simultaneously stunning and devastating that Kahn’s best, most nuanced performance is also her last.
It’s the second day of school and a solar eclipse has descended upon the small, sleepy Long Island town of Babylon. In the ensuing afternoon dark, unhappily married elementary school principal Arthur Gold (Bob Dishy) and prickly teacher Sue Berlin (Barbara Barrie) contemplate their longstanding, but unacted upon, romantic interest in each other. Arthur’s son, David (Aaron Harnick), 30, depressed and living at home again after a failed stint in Hollywood, has a chance encounter with a former high school classmate, Sue’s daughter, the relentlessly chirpy aspiring actress Judy Berlin (Edie Falco) on her last day in town before leaving for “the coast.” Meanwhile, Arthur’s wife Alice (Madeline Kahn) wanders the deserted streets with her housekeeper and a neighbor, before they peel off and she is left on her own.
Nothing really happens in Judy Berlin. The low-budget, black-and-white independent film is driven less by plot than it is by the characters we tag along with as they go about their day. It’s a meditation on suburban malaise, albeit one more subtle than its 1999 peer American Beauty. It has taken a rare, natural phenomenon to wake each character from their sleepy, well-worn habits, forcing them to confront their individual long-bubbling existential crises and realize just how lonely they are. While the film as a whole is uneven—David, the semi-autobiographical protagonist, has the broadest characterization and the flattest emotional arc—each actor (Falco, especially) turns in a lovely performance. However, it’s Kahn who is the heart at its center. It’s her Alice whose arc reveals the fears and pain we connect to most deeply. Days after I watched the film for the first time, I couldn’t stop thinking about her.
“I wanted children and I gave birth to a viper!”
The thing about Alice Gold is that she talks incessantly. The moment we meet her, she’s reciting a poem, or trying to, at least; she can’t seem to remember past the first few lines. From there, the yammering continues. She needles her husband to skip the second day of school and stay home with her. When he declines, she nags him with a tired routine: “Who’s your best lady, Art?” she asks. With his back turned towards her, she is unable to see the tired annoyance on his face, and pokes again until he yells. Her face crumples in momentary shock and disappointment, but just as soon as it’s landed, the pain flutters away, replaced instead with another teasing remark.
When Arthur leaves, she turns to her son, recounting a strange dream she had in amusing detail even as he ignores her. “What do you think it means, you know, subliminally?” she asks. Like his father, he is pushed and pushed until he finally snaps back: “There’s no sub to it! You’re all liminal.” She laughs his outburst off and talks at him more, as if her words will form a protective boundary that won’t allow the insult to land.
The opposite of love isn’t hatred, but disinterest. You get the idea that the men in Alice’s life have largely grown tired of engaging with her, even if it’s to tell her to shut up. The few times they do lash out at her, she lets it sting for a moment before replying with a desperate attempt for a joke. Ignoring her is easier.
You would think, by the way she endlessly chatters undeterred—so much that sometimes, as in a tense scene with a neighbor, she doesn’t even remember what she’s said—that there’s something mentally wrong with Alice, or that she just doesn’t get it. Maybe. Or, it could be that talking, even when no one is listening, has become a way to fill up the empty spaces, a way to push away any unpleasantries of life. But the eclipse has shaken something loose in Alice, a recognition of all the truths she knows but chooses not to face because doing so would be too painful. She’s been living all this time with two people who barely acknowledge her existence; her excruciating loneliness bubbles under her cheerfully chatty surface. In Alice’s mind, it’s better to be lonely alongside someone else than to have to face your loneliness by yourself. Now, she can’t be too sure.
“Wednesday. Sounds strange, doesn’t it? Like it’s kind of lost its meaning. Wednesday…Wednesday…Wednesday…Well, it doesn’t really matter, anyway, does it? I mean, has there ever been a Wednesday since the world began? Wednesday. Saturday. Tuesday. Five o’clock. Noon. Noon. Noon. It’s really just all made up. This is so funny. The whole world crumbles and a thing like Wednesday that you thought you could depend on just vanishes.”
The eclipse has stretched on impossibly long. Other characters in the film have questioned if something is truly wrong, but Alice finds delight in the strange new world, enlisting her housekeeper Carol to join her on a walk through the neighborhood to play “space explorers.” But the joy doesn’t last very long. A “touchdown” visit with a neighbor reveals cracks in Alice’s facade and exposes—painfully—her erratic and forgetful nature. It’s from this neighbor’s living room window, where she and Carol watch Arthur return home from school, that Alice’s world begins to collapse. Giddy like a child, Alice can’t wait to spring out and surprise him once he realizes she’s gone. But the moment never comes. His car idles across the street, finally speeding away when Alice runs outside to call after him. “My husband just left me,” she says with prescient knowingness, her mood suddenly snapping back to reflect her own age. The words tumble out: “I’m telling you. My husband just left me. The man left me. I was too much for him. I ground him down.”
The women chuckle. They assure her that’s not true. Alice swallows. She can’t breathe. “Oh, this is just too much,” she says. For once, she’s at a loss for words. She knows they can’t protect her now.
Carol leaves. She’s Alice’s employee, not her friend. Now, as Alice walks the dark streets alone, her life begins to break down. Time is unraveling. The simulation, as they say, is glitching. When Alice runs into her therapist on the street, she finds, in a shocking role reversal, that she’s the calm, reassuring one in this situation.
In the most uncertain of times, Alice becomes more lucid than she has been the entire film. She is lonely, estranged from both her son and her husband, and can’t quite come to grips not only with getting older, but with what that change might mean for the relationships in her life. The entirety of the poem she’s been struggling to recite over and over finally reveals itself to her. It’s not an ode to long lost youth, as we thought all along. It’s part of a morbid traditional folk song, “The Butcher’s Boy,” in which a young girl leaves a suicide note upon realizing the boy she loves has broken her heart.
Not much has changed; it just seems like it has. All the unpleasantries Alice tried to float above are now presenting themselves to her. Her closest companion is her housekeeper. She alienates relationships in her community and can’t even recall how. Her son isn’t just riding out a rough patch; he’s depressed, and he can’t stand her. Her marriage is crumbling, and if her emotionally distant husband isn’t already having an affair, he’s certainly thinking about it. Musing about the unraveling of time doesn’t help distract her. All it does is dissolve into memories of a tender love she once had that is no longer there. She can no longer talk herself out of these things, try as she might.
The issues Judy Berlin’s characters face—the thirst for stardom despite lack of talent, the internal shame of being unemployed and living at home, the frightening realization of disconnectedness—were merely simmering in America when the film was made at the turn of the century. Over time, they’ve grown to a boil, defining the past two decades, and reaching further into this bizarre year. Like the inhabitants of Babylon, we are living through a rare, natural phenomenon that has upended our normal ways of life and popped the top on a tightly-packed can of internal crises.
Most of us—not all, but most—are scared. Even if we’re not isolating totally alone, we’ve been stripped of nearly all meaningful socialization in a way that forces us to confront our own feelings of loneliness. It’s a kind of loneliness that has always been there, exacerbated as we grow increasingly attached to screens, and now accelerated by our relationships becoming entirely dependent upon them. These connections we cobble together through Zooms and FaceTimes are little more than endlessly giving energy to a screen, never receiving any in return. They aren’t relationships. They’re performances.
Time has lost all meaning, though the hours and days seem to pass more quickly now than they did at first. Living in this infinite present is exhausting. We ask how much longer this will last, despite knowing we don’t have an answer. There is “no getting used to it,” not really. I’ve lost track of the number of days I’ve spent quarantined. I’m lucky enough to be living with a roommate who is my best friend, but I cannot push away the creeping suspicion that, by now, I must be wearing on her nerves. People aren’t supposed to spend this much time apart, but they’re aren’t meant to spend this much time together, either.
I go for long walks through Manhattan alone. I always did this, even in the Before Times. I’m good—maybe too good—at being my own company. But this is different. Now, when I say alone, I mean alone. As the days grow warmer and the impatience mounts, those who could not or did not flee for greener pastures have begun to stumble outside. Newly bonded by collective rage that supersedes our fear, thousands of us march together. Still, I cannot shake the vision of the early, unfamiliar days of this thing and how barren the streets were, how they became foreign in their desertedness. This version of the city was uncanny and unsettling, but I couldn’t help but want to go out and see it with my own eyes. I was playing space explorer.
A note about range again: Having it vocally granted Kahn range performatively. Her voice is her greatest asset as a performer, and not only because she’s a highly skilled, talented singer. There’s an inherent musicality to the way Kahn approaches and delivers her lines that sets her apart.
In comedy, as in music, rhythm is everything; you either have it or you don’t. On screen and stage, actors less naturally adept can be taught to some extent, aided by good direction and a good script—timing, after all, can exist on a page. This is where tone comes in. The pause before the punchline can be hit just right, but if the inflection is wrong, the whole thing falls apart.
Lily Tomlin once said Kahn was “someone who said things funny, not someone who said funny things.” Indeed, the most memorable of Kahn’s lines, the ones that have become stuck in the film and pop culture lexicon—“Howard, they’ve got your rocks!;” “Let ole Trixie sit up front with her big tits;” “Taffeta, darling!;” especially “I hated her…so much, it…it…it…flames, flames…flames, on the sides of my face”—aren’t actually all that funny or striking on paper. They don’t hit unless you read them in her voice, imagining the way it is capable of adopting a certain accent and swooping from shrill shrieks to maudlin grumbles to girlish and affected, and everything in between—sometimes within a single sentence. Funny voices are a pantry staple for many comedians, but it’s easy to go overboard, to show the artifice of someone trying to be funny, which ends up, of course, not being funny at all. When Kahn “says things funny,” she draws upon her training as a singer (and perhaps, too, her degree in speech therapy) to connect the voice to a character’s history and psychology. It isn’t comedy for comedy’s sake; it reads as authentic and grounds the performance in truth—and in comedy, truth is gold.
It’s difficult to write about tone; trying to describe what something sounds like with words is like trying to describe the color blue. It just doesn’t translate. But vocal tone is integral to Kahn’s performance in Judy Berlin. With many scenes alone, without a partner or physicality to play off of, much of Alice’s character is discovered in her words, though not quite in what Alice says, but how Kahn chooses to say it. When Kahn speaks as Alice, her voice is laced with a touch of a Long Island accent that grows and diminishes in strength, depending on her mood. Sometimes her voice is strident, though at other times it’s desperate and dopey; her accent tends to thicken when she’s trilling. It is soft and motherly in one moment, high and girlish the next. The humor and depth in Alice, and what makes all her endless dialogue not just tolerable, but enjoyable, lies in these vocal complexities.
“You know, it’s very funny. I’m actually very good in emergencies, really. It’s just the day-to-day things that give me a little trouble. Something like this happens and I feel that finally the rest of the world and I are speaking the same language.”
With less sensitive direction, in the hands of a performer who wanted to play it one-note for laughs, Alice Gold could easily slip into a sitcom-level caricature. She hinges just on the precipice of being another talkative, forgetful, needling Long Island yente who makes one too many unfunny mom jokes.
That, obviously, was the last thing Kahn wanted to play. She had never done an independent film before, and though drawn to director Eric Mendelsohn’s script, she had reservations about taking what she considered to be such a risk. Before she agreed to sign on, she wanted to meet first with Mendelsohn to ask what his intentions were; she wanted to be sure the film wouldn’t end up mocking a character she wanted to approach with delicate sympathy.
Mendelsohn was struck, upon their first meeting, by Kahn’s intense sensitivity, a contrast to the bright, carefree woman she appeared to be on screen. “A misapprehension, or the subtleties of human interaction seemed almost to pain her,” he said. He was moved by the contrast between the two—public persona and private one—and how difficult it must have been to maintain. It seemed, he said, as if “she had her nervous system mistakenly put on the outside of her body.”
It’s this emotional fragility Kahn brings to the role, molding Alice into someone whose sadness is made complicated by her childlike playfulness and wonder. The result is a character unlike anything else in Kahn’s catalogue, humorous at times, yes, but bigger than that, deliciously whole and complex. With Alice, Kahn fully mines the underlying tragedy she had always looked for and emotions—fear, anxiety, melancholy—she had never been able to fully explore on film. She finds that Alice, like most of us, is funny not because she intends to be, but because she’s human. We are constantly at the mercy of other people’s interpretations; even if we take ourselves seriously, it doesn’t always mean others won’t find things we say or do laughable.
All the while, she’s a woman on the edge—though of what, we can’t quite be sure. The Alice we first meet is luminous and in high spirits. As the film wears on, though she tries to keep her good humor, her light begins to flicker and dim. Nothing in her world is what she believed it to be. Even the concept of time, disrupted by the improbable nighttime in the middle of the day, threatens to break her spirit.
The whole time, you feel deeply for Alice because Kahn feels deeply for her. The palpable sense of warmth and gentle love for this character transcends the screen. You want to spend your time with her. You want to protect her. You want to let her know she’s not alone, not really.
I don’t know if I love Judy Berlin so much because I love this character or because I love Madeline Kahn. I think it’s both, the way one melts into the other. Years after I first discovered Kahn’s work, I learned that I had gravitated towards an artist who wasn’t as different from myself as I had thought. She wasn’t naturally confident and charismatic; she had her own deep well of anxieties, too. Judy Berlin is the rare occurrence in Kahn’s career in which she is like her character, and thereby it is the closest we will ever get to watching the real Madeline Kahn. So when everyone else abandons Alice and she’s left to walk through the neighborhood alone, in silence for maybe the first time in who knows how long, I want to climb into the film and walk beside her. I think we’d both find the whole thing equal parts fascinating and frightening. I want to space explore with her. Stop in on the neighbors. Talk about aging and mortality and life. Ask her how she’s really feeling and what she’s really thinking, and actually listen.
Kahn insisted that she and Alice were nothing alike, but her protests don’t hold; they read Alice-like in and of themselves. She might not have been a suburban housewife herself, but there’s more to both just beneath their happy veneers. At their core, they are both women with deep sadness, women who have been neglected, be it by the men in their lives or their industry. Surely Kahn understood that. But, then again, denial is a powerful coping mechanism. If you say something enough, you can start to believe it. If anything, you can put enough distance between yourself and the truth to not have to think about it for a while.
Judy Berlin premiered at the Sundance Film Festival in January of 1999. The critical acclaim it and Kahn received was the kind that prompts career renaissances, free of any hazy preconceived expectations of what an actor is capable of. But Kahn never got that. In December of that same year, she died of ovarian cancer at the age of 57. Lacking any kind of cohesive, widespread release, Judy Berlin fizzled out to become another lauded but relatively unknown and difficult to find cult film.
If you scroll through the YouTube comments on any Madeline Kahn video, you’ll see a lot of the same sentiment: “She is truly missed” and “Gone too soon” and “Is there anything she couldn’t do?” Of course, part of the reason I return to this film over and over is because it is her final performance. I want it to never end because I selfishly want more time with her. On film, our favorite people are forever preserved, still alive, still full of potential. When it’s over, we are back in the sad, unfair reality. One of the greatest heartbreaks of Judy Berlin is knowing that Madeline Kahn has been gone for 20 years, and all we can do is think of how wonderful she was, and what a fantastic older character actress she could have become. All we can do is appreciate her in tenses past and conditional, never present.
Kahn’s final moments on film are mostly silent. She lets her eyes do the talking for her. In just a few moments, they flash everything Alice is thinking: anger, betrayal, confusion, resignation, and deep hurt. I can’t help but read them today as an indictment of us, too. We loved Madeline Kahn, but we also betrayed her. We put her in a box and watched her flounder alone. When we were finally ready to see who she really was, it was too late.