Many funny women have graced the screen over the years, from Mabel Normand to Lucille Ball to Tina Fey, but one woman's impact was unlike any other -- Madeline Kahn's.
When Star Trek was looming and there was a loud undercurrent of chatter about the previous space-led films, my brain got punny and came up with "The Wrath of Madeline Kahn." At first, I explained away my attachment to the title as part of my love of word play. But soon, I realized it was more than that. Kahn's wrath is a lot of what made her such an indelible comedic figure in Hollywood, one that grabbed two Oscar nominations for her craft.
We always see wrath as this bubbling explosion of anger that hunts down victims near and far. But with Kahn, it was all caught within herself -- wrath (of anger and exuberance) trapped in a human-shaped globe, a sizzling plasma ball. She always seemed like a bomb waiting to explode, whether it be her careful composure in Young Frankenstein, or her desire to find a primitive man as she peels the layers away, or most appropriately, her discussion of anger as Mrs. White in Clue. "I hated her ... so ... much ... I-it-it ... flames ... flames ... on the side of my face ... breathing ... breathle ... heavy breaths ... heaving ..."
There was this distinct but fragile composure to her work and characters, seeming to be, at once, both commanding and easily breakable. When The New York Times interviewed her in 1993, they noted Kahn's shyness, and how "few people ever seem to notice her discomfort." As she described it: "I find being funny very hard work. I am always asked about it and I feel guilty saying that, but it's the truth. I love my work but it ain't easy." But I would argue that we did notice, although we might not have realized it.
This trapped wrath, as I've called it, could be infused, or inspired, by her discomfort. "Fun is carefree," she said. "I am not carefree. I am not, in general, a funny person." Considering comedy to be great work, it's no wonder there was a sweet tenseness to her roles, which made her work so unique. Where many comedians use carefully crafted stories or physical moves to elicit laughs, she was the embodiment of the awkward and uncomfortable comedy others would simply mimic or recreate.
I would never go so far as to suggest that her talent was an accident of shyness and discomfort, but there was an undercurrent of misunderstanding ... a disconnection with the genre. As the JWA relays, during a discussion of comedic technique, Kahn once said: "Laughter is a strange response. I mean, what is it? It's a spasm of some kind! Is that always joy? It's very often discomfort. It's some sort of explosive reaction."
It's been almost ten years since she succumbed to ovarian cancer on December 3, 1999, but she's still invoking spasms -- explosive reactions of laughter that are most certainly joy. Trixie Delight. Lili Von Shtupp. Elizabeth. Victoria Brisbane. Empress Nympho. Mrs. White. Lola Hopper. Blanche Munchik.
Which is your favorite?