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Madeline Kahn: Being the Music, A Life (Hollywood Legends Series)

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Best known for her Oscar-nominated roles in the smash hits Paper Moon and Blazing Saddles, Madeline Kahn (1942-1999) was one of the most popular comedians of her time--and one of the least understood. In private, she was as reserved and refined as her characters were bold and bawdy. Almost a Method actor in her approach, she took her work seriously. When crew members and a Best known for her Oscar-nominated roles in the smash hits Paper Moon and Blazing Saddles, Madeline Kahn (1942-1999) was one of the most popular comedians of her time--and one of the least understood. In private, she was as reserved and refined as her characters were bold and bawdy. Almost a Method actor in her approach, she took her work seriously. When crew members and audiences laughed, she asked why--as if they were laughing at her--and all her life she remained unsure of her gifts. William V. Madison examines Kahn's film career, including not only her triumphs with Mel Brooks and Peter Bogdanovich, but also her overlooked performances in The Adventure of Sherlock Holmes' Smarter Brother and Judy Berlin, her final film. Her work in television--notably her sitcoms--also comes into focus. New York theater showered her with accolades, but also with remarkably bad luck, culminating in a disastrous outing in On the Twentieth Century that wrecked her reputation on Broadway. Only with her Tony-winning performance in The Sisters Rosensweig, fifteen years later, did Kahn regain her standing. Drawing on new interviews with family, friends, and such colleagues as Lily Tomlin, Carol Burnett, Gene Wilder, Harold Prince, and Eileen Brennan, as well as archival press and private writings, Madison uncovers Kahn's lonely childhood and her struggles as a single woman working to provide for her erratic mother. Above all, Madison reveals the paramount importance of music in Kahn's life. A talented singer, she entertained offers for operatic engagements long after she was an established Hollywood star, and she treated each script as a score. As Kahn told one friend, her ambition was "to be the music."


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Best known for her Oscar-nominated roles in the smash hits Paper Moon and Blazing Saddles, Madeline Kahn (1942-1999) was one of the most popular comedians of her time--and one of the least understood. In private, she was as reserved and refined as her characters were bold and bawdy. Almost a Method actor in her approach, she took her work seriously. When crew members and a Best known for her Oscar-nominated roles in the smash hits Paper Moon and Blazing Saddles, Madeline Kahn (1942-1999) was one of the most popular comedians of her time--and one of the least understood. In private, she was as reserved and refined as her characters were bold and bawdy. Almost a Method actor in her approach, she took her work seriously. When crew members and audiences laughed, she asked why--as if they were laughing at her--and all her life she remained unsure of her gifts. William V. Madison examines Kahn's film career, including not only her triumphs with Mel Brooks and Peter Bogdanovich, but also her overlooked performances in The Adventure of Sherlock Holmes' Smarter Brother and Judy Berlin, her final film. Her work in television--notably her sitcoms--also comes into focus. New York theater showered her with accolades, but also with remarkably bad luck, culminating in a disastrous outing in On the Twentieth Century that wrecked her reputation on Broadway. Only with her Tony-winning performance in The Sisters Rosensweig, fifteen years later, did Kahn regain her standing. Drawing on new interviews with family, friends, and such colleagues as Lily Tomlin, Carol Burnett, Gene Wilder, Harold Prince, and Eileen Brennan, as well as archival press and private writings, Madison uncovers Kahn's lonely childhood and her struggles as a single woman working to provide for her erratic mother. Above all, Madison reveals the paramount importance of music in Kahn's life. A talented singer, she entertained offers for operatic engagements long after she was an established Hollywood star, and she treated each script as a score. As Kahn told one friend, her ambition was "to be the music."

30 review for Madeline Kahn: Being the Music, A Life (Hollywood Legends Series)

  1. 5 out of 5

    Lynx

    When I excitedly told friends I was reading a biography on the wonderful Madeline Kahn, I was shocked and saddened to find not a single one knew who she was. It wasn't until I listed off the many characters she brought to life that their faces brightened with recognition. Madeline's star may have faded over time but William Madison brings her back to life with the most comprehensive biography one could ask for. Covering her entire career on stage, in pictures and television, Madison digs up inte When I excitedly told friends I was reading a biography on the wonderful Madeline Kahn, I was shocked and saddened to find not a single one knew who she was. It wasn't until I listed off the many characters she brought to life that their faces brightened with recognition. Madeline's star may have faded over time but William Madison brings her back to life with the most comprehensive biography one could ask for. Covering her entire career on stage, in pictures and television, Madison digs up interviews, reviews and fun facts making sure to never just gloss over any job however small. Using Madeline's personal journal as well as interviews with her family and friends we learn all about Madeline's personal life, her childhood and strained relationship with her mother and her struggle with mental anxieties. I hope now, with such a wonderful biography out there Madeline's beautiful spirit will begin getting recognition with a new generation, and will remind those who grew up loving her of all the laughs she's given us. *Thank you Netgalley & University Press of Mississippi for this review copy.

  2. 4 out of 5

    Rachel

    It is thrilling to finally have in my hands a biography dedicated to the fascinating actress often forgotten, Madeline Kahn. The book boasts an array of interviewees closely linked to Madeline's professional and private life but ultimately the writing shows levels of bias and fails to reveal anything new about Madeline that isn't already, to some extent, discussed online. The writing is sometimes repetitive but Madison's observations of Madeline's performances are enjoyable to read and the final It is thrilling to finally have in my hands a biography dedicated to the fascinating actress often forgotten, Madeline Kahn. The book boasts an array of interviewees closely linked to Madeline's professional and private life but ultimately the writing shows levels of bias and fails to reveal anything new about Madeline that isn't already, to some extent, discussed online. The writing is sometimes repetitive but Madison's observations of Madeline's performances are enjoyable to read and the final chapters addressing her illness are incredibly touching. It's nice to have a companion to Madeline's career that quickly inspires readers to revisit films or scroll through YouTube clips of the talented star.

  3. 4 out of 5

    Joe Hartman

    Madeline Kahn fans have been wanting a comprehensive bio on her for awhile, in order to understand her elusive nature, get a clue as to where her innate comic abilities came from, and just to feel closer to her. In some aspects, this bio succeeds. In a way, it wins simply by being the only one out there. It's thoughtfully written, objective, and respectful, but it fails to give any sense of immediacy. There is no feeling of "being there". A great bio makes one feel like he was there, allows the r Madeline Kahn fans have been wanting a comprehensive bio on her for awhile, in order to understand her elusive nature, get a clue as to where her innate comic abilities came from, and just to feel closer to her. In some aspects, this bio succeeds. In a way, it wins simply by being the only one out there. It's thoughtfully written, objective, and respectful, but it fails to give any sense of immediacy. There is no feeling of "being there". A great bio makes one feel like he was there, allows the reader a sense of what it was like to have experienced what the subject went through. While the intro succeeds at this, past that, the book falls short of living up to that promise. The biographer never turns the interviews into more than information, and I was always aware that I was reading content from people's recollections of events years after they occurred. The quotes from Madeline herself? Many of them I recognized from having viewed them as talkshow interview clips readily available on Youtube. They are legitimate quotes, and yet having them so easily accessible takes away from the work of the author. Sure, Madeline was by reputation somewhat aloof and guarded about her inner life, but that's the very reason a bio about her is so tempting, to respectfully understand her "story", what drove her both in her personal and public life. Madeline kept some people at a distance, and seems to be doing so even today. What you DO get is a great picture of Madeline the performer, and what made her so unique. Madison really grasps her aims and what she valued as an artist. He touches on both the starring roles and the guest appearances and the comprehensive look at her career is, of itself, worth the purchase price.

  4. 5 out of 5

    V. Briceland

    Madison's truly comprehensive book on Madeline Kahn—multi-talented comedian, actor, and singer—isn't a standard glossy star bio. Instead, it's a careful and considered examination of the life and career of a remarkable woman who, by all accounts, never really understood why so many loved, admired, and emulated her. Not content with sticking to the career highlights—the Mel Brooks films, the award-nominated performances, the big stage shows—Madison digs up every little nugget of Kahn's career. Eve Madison's truly comprehensive book on Madeline Kahn—multi-talented comedian, actor, and singer—isn't a standard glossy star bio. Instead, it's a careful and considered examination of the life and career of a remarkable woman who, by all accounts, never really understood why so many loved, admired, and emulated her. Not content with sticking to the career highlights—the Mel Brooks films, the award-nominated performances, the big stage shows—Madison digs up every little nugget of Kahn's career. Every Saturday Night Live, every guest appearance on late-night TV, every concert, the television pilots and the summer stock roles and the bit parts—receives its own respectful chapter. Despite the meticulousness of his approach, Madison is never too adulatory of Kahn; he's willing to admit when she seemed to have chosen roles for a paycheck over artistry. He's also careful to interview as many people as possible involved with any one part of her career, as in his fascinating chapter about Kahn's too-brief involvement with the original Broadway production of On the Twentieth Century. Although it was rumored at the time that Kahn might have been abusing cocaine, Madison's investigations seem to indicate that Kahn's own insecurities—if not outright neuroses—probably played the biggest role in her erratic behavior during her brief run as the lead. Well-researched and fascinating, this biography is a must-read for any fan of the late Madeline Kahn.

  5. 4 out of 5

    Erin

    Well -researched bio of Kahn, one of my favorite actresses/comediennes. Writing can be a little academic at times but the reader learns how long & hard Kahn worked at her career. And her mom was kind of a jerk....

  6. 5 out of 5

    Tony

    Fans of Madeline will not be disappointed. Lots of info and plenty of it new to me.

  7. 5 out of 5

    Lietke

    Too much personal editorializing by the author.

  8. 4 out of 5

    Jean Brazil

    Well researched and written biography.

  9. 4 out of 5

    Mediaman

    This 3 and 1/2-star book is a credit-by-credit approach to Kahn. It's not her life story so much as a career overview, covering year-by-year her theatrical shows, movies, and television work. Through it all the author seems very distant from Kahn and has a hard time letting us get to know her. He interviewed family members and close co-workers but in the end we don't get the sense that we understand the actress since the writer paints her as a very serious performer who never thought she was fun This 3 and 1/2-star book is a credit-by-credit approach to Kahn. It's not her life story so much as a career overview, covering year-by-year her theatrical shows, movies, and television work. Through it all the author seems very distant from Kahn and has a hard time letting us get to know her. He interviewed family members and close co-workers but in the end we don't get the sense that we understand the actress since the writer paints her as a very serious performer who never thought she was funny. Probably the biggest problem with the book is that there is so little humor to it, and that she is never portrayed as being happy. Kahn is known for a few big movies--and the writer falls terribly short of devoting enough material to those films. He needed to do much, much more about What's Up Doc?, her first film role. Instead he devotes long chapters to minor, boring theatrical pieces and seems to go out of his way to want to prove that music was the main thing in her life. The problem is that she's known mostly for comedy and not music. So the subtitle of the book ("Being the Music") makes no sense. The story of how Kahn was controlled by a stage mother runs throughout the book and the actress does seem to enable her mother to be manipulative. Kahn never seems secure or confident in her talent, and much of that comes from a mother who wants to on-up her star daughter. The whole family dynamic (with Madeline's father and step-father and half-siblings) is odd, and the fact that the actress never married until she was on her death bed raises more questions than this book answers. There's almost nothing about her love life, except for one married star actor she worked with in a theatrical production that she had an affair with, but he goes unnamed. So in the end it's very unsatisfying. In the hands of a better writer this could have been a compelling and uplifting story for fans. Instead it's a misguided attempt to focus mostly on her career and analyze her work choices after her death, something that leads to more speculation that information.

  10. 5 out of 5

    Jdursi

    2-2.5 stars When I first saw this book I couldn’t wait to read it. I’ve been a fan of Ms. Kahn since I was a teenager. But OMG this book took me over a year to finish. It was very hard for me to get into and could only read very little at a time. It just wasn’t what I expected. Even though she passed, I thought more of her voice would’ve shone through. It was sad to see somebody so talented still have trouble believing in her own worth. I think she could teach today’s struggling kids a lot in reg 2-2.5 stars When I first saw this book I couldn’t wait to read it. I’ve been a fan of Ms. Kahn since I was a teenager. But OMG this book took me over a year to finish. It was very hard for me to get into and could only read very little at a time. It just wasn’t what I expected. Even though she passed, I thought more of her voice would’ve shone through. It was sad to see somebody so talented still have trouble believing in her own worth. I think she could teach today’s struggling kids a lot in regards to anxiety. She makes me smile every single time I see her on screen and she was definitely taken from her family, friends and fans way too soon.

  11. 4 out of 5

    Joe

    A solid biography of Ms Kahn, covering her unstable childhood with an absent father and a mentally disturbed mother, her triumphant run of hits in the 70s then the decline of her career and her early death from ovarian cancer. I didn't know how emotionally fragile she was, and how her crippling insecurities about her talent damaged her ability to find employment. Madeline Kahn was a singular talent who didn't realize how awesome she was. A solid biography of Ms Kahn, covering her unstable childhood with an absent father and a mentally disturbed mother, her triumphant run of hits in the 70s then the decline of her career and her early death from ovarian cancer. I didn't know how emotionally fragile she was, and how her crippling insecurities about her talent damaged her ability to find employment. Madeline Kahn was a singular talent who didn't realize how awesome she was.

  12. 4 out of 5

    Caroline Toole

    you’re telling me im supposed to just let this shit fly????? unfortunate that an at times sexist & judgmental book has become the definitive ‘thing’ for madeline kahn’s life. 2 stars because it does provide a wealth of information however. the way the book legit said she floundered without men like god what are y’all on 😭

  13. 4 out of 5

    Karen Strecker Reidy

    Brilliant insights from a thorough researcher who managed to capture interviews w key figures in MK's life, notably Gene Wilder, before they too passed away. Brilliant insights from a thorough researcher who managed to capture interviews w key figures in MK's life, notably Gene Wilder, before they too passed away.

  14. 5 out of 5

    hannah ferg

    :'| :'|

  15. 4 out of 5

    Marc Andrew Downing

    A thorough biography on a wonderful actress whom I adored. It brought back many memories of a joyous time of my life of which Madeline was a part. I really miss her...

  16. 4 out of 5

    Lisa Burris

    I, like many, many people, adore Madeline Kahn and miss her immensely. She was uniquely talented, one of a few, rare comedians who could play outrageously silly, yet retain her air of dignity and a ladylike demeanor. I was eager to read this biography, because there is so little written about Kahn. I enjoyed learning about her life, particularly the "insider" interviews with luminaries like Peter Bogdonavich, Kevin Kline, and Mel Brooks. This books is nothing if not well-researched. My quibble w I, like many, many people, adore Madeline Kahn and miss her immensely. She was uniquely talented, one of a few, rare comedians who could play outrageously silly, yet retain her air of dignity and a ladylike demeanor. I was eager to read this biography, because there is so little written about Kahn. I enjoyed learning about her life, particularly the "insider" interviews with luminaries like Peter Bogdonavich, Kevin Kline, and Mel Brooks. This books is nothing if not well-researched. My quibble with it is that the book focuses more on a blow-by-blow account of her work. It's extensive, but, I found, a bit boring. I anticipated that the book would give more insight into Kahn, her life, and her motivations. Although I appreciate this book for being the only one of its kind, I wish there was more information about Kahn's personal life.

  17. 5 out of 5

    fleegan

    Madeline Kahn has always been one of my favorite actresses. I mean, she's a total package. This biography was researched very well, and you can tell the author loves his subject. The whole thing has a melancholy feel to it, and so it wasn't exactly an entertaining read, but it was a good read. It seems that Madeline Kahn was never quite satisfied with her acting/roles, and she didn't understand why people thought she was funny. That part alone is heartbreaking. It's a good book and many of Madel Madeline Kahn has always been one of my favorite actresses. I mean, she's a total package. This biography was researched very well, and you can tell the author loves his subject. The whole thing has a melancholy feel to it, and so it wasn't exactly an entertaining read, but it was a good read. It seems that Madeline Kahn was never quite satisfied with her acting/roles, and she didn't understand why people thought she was funny. That part alone is heartbreaking. It's a good book and many of Madeline's costars and directors supply some good insight into her life.

  18. 4 out of 5

    Shawn Hill

    The life of a high-strung, multi-talented artist and comedienne, who could belt Broadway tunes and sing opera, but wasn't taken completely seriously by either world is profiled with great detail and sensivity here. Career highs are celebrated, and lows are explored. Whether Kahn was an actress or singer first, she was a verified star before her early death (from cancer) and her career was just in time to benefit from the home video craze, ensuring her legacy of comedic performances keep finding The life of a high-strung, multi-talented artist and comedienne, who could belt Broadway tunes and sing opera, but wasn't taken completely seriously by either world is profiled with great detail and sensivity here. Career highs are celebrated, and lows are explored. Whether Kahn was an actress or singer first, she was a verified star before her early death (from cancer) and her career was just in time to benefit from the home video craze, ensuring her legacy of comedic performances keep finding new audiences.

  19. 5 out of 5

    Daniel Krolik

    A bracingly honest and moving chronicle of one of the greats. Madison's exhaustive account of Madeline's life and career is full of surprises and paints an indelible picture of a brilliant and often contradictory artist. He explains what sets her apart, why some of her performances are legendary, why others don't work, how she succeeded, how she was let down by others in her industry, and how she sometimes became her own worst enemy. A revelation. A bracingly honest and moving chronicle of one of the greats. Madison's exhaustive account of Madeline's life and career is full of surprises and paints an indelible picture of a brilliant and often contradictory artist. He explains what sets her apart, why some of her performances are legendary, why others don't work, how she succeeded, how she was let down by others in her industry, and how she sometimes became her own worst enemy. A revelation.

  20. 5 out of 5

    pianogal

    This book was a little drier than I'd hoped. It was kind of a "Just the Facts, Ma'am" approach to the actress who was anything but dry. I also got a little tired of him saying how shy and unassuming she was. We get it. Describe her another way. Other than that this was an interesting book. I didn't know much about her beyond Blazing Saddles, but the book goes was beyond that. This book was a little drier than I'd hoped. It was kind of a "Just the Facts, Ma'am" approach to the actress who was anything but dry. I also got a little tired of him saying how shy and unassuming she was. We get it. Describe her another way. Other than that this was an interesting book. I didn't know much about her beyond Blazing Saddles, but the book goes was beyond that.

  21. 4 out of 5

    Patrick DiJusto

    Probably the most oft-repeated sentence in the book comes, unbidden, from its numerous celebrity interviewees like Robert Klein, Carol Kane, Ryan O'Neal, Mel Brooks, Lily Tomlin, and so many others: "Everyone just fell in love with Madeline". As did we all. Probably the most oft-repeated sentence in the book comes, unbidden, from its numerous celebrity interviewees like Robert Klein, Carol Kane, Ryan O'Neal, Mel Brooks, Lily Tomlin, and so many others: "Everyone just fell in love with Madeline". As did we all.

  22. 5 out of 5

    R.J. Gilmour

    A really good biography of the life and work of Madeline Kahn. Reading it you come to understand how this incredibly talented woman was always uncomfortable about her status as a comedy icon.

  23. 5 out of 5

    K. Marie Jones

    What a wonderful entertainer. Truly missed.

  24. 4 out of 5

    Jane

    Great bio of a wonderful performing artist.

  25. 5 out of 5

    Wally Bruederle

    Nothing special here about the writing but she was a very interesting person and that made the book a worthwhile read.

  26. 4 out of 5

    Francoise Purdue

  27. 5 out of 5

    Tracey

  28. 5 out of 5

    Kat

  29. 5 out of 5

    Ken Matye

  30. 4 out of 5

    Siobhan Cortes

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