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Home: The Toast

It’s a little hard sometimes to define what it is that I love so much about Mel Brooks movies (Spaceballs being a notable exception and one that I am no longer willing to argue about with you people). At least part of it has to be because of his murderer’s row of comediennes he featured in his films: Teri Garr, Tracy Ullman, Cloris Leachmann, Bernadette Peters, Bea Arthur, and of course The Kahn. Which is not, by the way, to say that his movies were equitably cast! They decidedly weren’t. But when he cast a woman, he cast the best. And Madeline Kahn was the crown jewel.

This is a thirty-second clip from History of the World where her only dialogue (as “Empress Nympho” are the words “yes” and “no,” and it’s an undeniable, operatic tour de force. (Also, there are butts in it, so maybe don’t watch it at work.)

How can one woman make something so simple so magnetic? You know she was in opera singer before she became an actress, and I’m beginning to think that should be a requirement for anyone who wants to break into comedy. Her face! Those tiny, subtle, suggestive changes in expression that add pages of subtext to every “yes” and “no”!

The movie itself is cheesy and dated as hell, which describes the majority of Brooks’ oeuvre. They (of course) can’t resist the obvious joke that Gregory Hines’ character has a “great corkscrew.” But there’s a joyfulness, both to Madeline’s performance and the movie as a whole, that brings me back to it even though there’s plenty in the script that should be consigned to the dust-heap of history. No one plays disgust like Madeline, and no one plays excitement like her either. She has no in-between.

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