The voice of Madeline Kahn, who died of ovarian cancer at the age of 57 on Dec. 3, was a singular sensation. It could soar musically (check out the 1978 cast recording from Broadway’s On the 20th Century) and, in her non-singing roles, turn modern anxieties into arias that wavered, warbled, and quivered their way toward utter panic. She could deliver a Rorschach on a character with a single word; by the end of the sentence, you had the complete biography.
Kahn was hardly a conventional talent: Surely the only traditionally trained operatic soprano to be Oscar-nominated for a Mel Brooks film (1974’s Blazing Saddles), she starred in her own 1983-84 sitcom, Oh Madeline, and won a 1993 Tony for her sad and funny turn as the yearning Dr. Gorgeous in Wendy Wasserstein’s The Sisters Rosensweig. She could perform a Kurt Weill song and imitate an unraveling Pat Nixon (as she did, quite memorably, on Saturday Night Live in 1976) with equally brilliant dexterity.
She personified one of her profession’s oldest rules—the one about no small parts, only small actors. After her cancer diagnosis in 1998, she continued working between chemo treatments at her last job, on CBS’ Cosby as the quirky neighbor Pauline (she shot four of this season’s episodes). Her unique flair is most apparent in a quartet of films she made in the 1970s. In Peter Bogdanovich’s What’s Up, Doc? (”I am not a Eunice Burns. I am the Eunice Burns”), she braved all the havoc the city of San Francisco could unleash on an Iowa woman whose idea of chic was a red wig permanently flipped, and she stole the show from Barbra Streisand. Both Kahn and a young Tatum O’Neal scored Oscar nominations for Bogdanovich’s Paper Moon. O’Neal got the statue, but Kahn’s turn as Miss Trixie Delight, a small-time stripper with the nearly constant need to ”tinkie winkie,” moved her one step higher in the pantheon of comedy greats whose genius resides in the ability to suggest the longing beneath the laughs. In her next screen outing, as Lili Von Shtupp in Blazing Saddles, Kahn was a second-tier Dietrich-type diva, stuck singing a song called ”I’m Tired” (”They’re always coming and going…and always too soon!”) in a town way further west than she had ever intended to go. That same year, in Brooks’ Young Frankenstein, she broke into ”Sweet Mystery of Life” during a moment of monstrous ecstasy.
She was the kind of pro who could make history with a one-time-only appearance; at a 1992 Carnegie Hall tribute to Stephen Sondheim, she gave the definitive performance of the rapid-fire, monumentally difficult number ”Getting Married Today” from Company. ”The preparation was always there, whatever it was,” recalls her husband, attorney John Hansbury, who lived with Kahn for a decade and married her in the hospital on Oct. 6. ”She had that old-fashioned kind of professionalism.”
The kind that greatness is made of.