February 13, 1933– Kim Novak:
”I walked away from Hollywood partially because I didn’t stand up to the bullies. I caved in to the pressure instead of fighting for what I felt was right…and I didn’t have the courage to prove myself to my peers through my work. Now, we need to stop lying about how people age. We need to own our botox, our fillers, our nose jobs, our liposuction.”
In 2014, after Kim Novak’s rare public appearance at the 86th Academy Awards, social media seemed especially snarky with comments that she was hardly recognizable, and speculation that she had cosmetic surgery that had gone terribly wrong. Donald Trump tweeted that Novak needing to ”fire her plastic surgeon” and lead a pack of his deplorables down the same path. Novak was devastated, and said at the time:
“It really did throw me into a tailspin and it hit me hard.”
She did admit that she had fat injections in her face because she felt “they seemed far less invasive than a face-lift”.
“So why did I do it? I trusted somebody doing what I thought they knew how to do best. I should have known better, but what do you do? We do some stupid things in our lives.”
Novak walked away from Hollywood. After being one of the top actors of the 1950s and early 1960s, she had a string of bad roles and bad reviews, including lukewarm responses to her performance in Vertigo (1958). Recently voted the greatest film of all time by Sight & Sound Magazine, in 1958 Vertigo was widely regarded as the rare Alfred Hitchcock dud.
Vertigo is my own personal favorite Hitchcock. It is in my Top Ten Films and I considered it to be his masterpiece. He made scarier films, such as Psycho (1960); more playful ones, Rear Window (1954); more suspenseful ones, like Strangers On A Train (1951), and most of his work is easier to watch. Yet, there is a special intensity to Vertigo that I really go for. Hitchcock gave audiences sly hints of his devious personality behind his plots, but with Vertigo, there is something deadly serious going on, as if he finally decided to drop the elegant teasing, and give audiences something raw and about his, and our, deepest fears.
From its opening titles, with Saul Bass’s swirling geometric designs sucking us down helplessly into a vortex, the film invites a certain kind of obsession for Hitchcock fans.
Critics complained that it was obtuse and implausible. Audiences didn’t like seeing Jimmy Stewart in such an unsympathetic role. Vertigo dropped the familiar mechanics of suspense that Hitchcock had trained his audience to love in his films.
I remember not getting it at all when I saw Vertigo as a teenager. I was a fan of Psycho, Notorious (1946), and The Man Who Knew Too Much, and I found Vertigo to be bewitched, bothersome and bewildering. After the addictive wickedness of his other movies, Vertigo seemed just too arty and stilted for me.
But, Vertigo was a grower, not a shower. Seeing it in film class in the early 1970s, I finally got its repetitive pattern of romantic obsession, which makes more sense the more we see it repeated. It now came across as deeper and more dream-like with each new viewing.
After seeing it five times, I decided that it was quite extraordinary. I even wrote a paper on what I thought was its unusual structure (it starts twice), and I was no longer undone by beloved Stewart being believably insane.
There was also that creepy thing about Hitchcock’s infamous casting methods, his attempts to sculpt his blond leading ladies into his latest ice-cool beauty, as if he was bringing back Ingrid Bergman and Grace Kelly who chose not to work with him again.
Hitchcock never used color with such nightmarish effect. For some it is headache-inducing. There is the eerie green of the graveyard fog and the red of signs and sirens, plus Bernard Herrmann’s score, certainly one of the greatest in the history of movies. No wonder audiences actually get dizzy watching it.
Vertigo pioneered the camera effect, known as the ”dolly zoom”, where the viewer (the point of view is Stewart’s) appears to fall into an infinite abyss while remaining quite still.
If you have not seen it, and you really need to, it is a story of a phobic retired police detective (Stewart) who falls in love with a woman he sees only at a distance. And then, apparently, he sees the woman die. Little does he suspect that both the woman and her death are not real. When he encounters someone who looks exactly like his fantasy, he persuades her to play the role of the woman in his dreams.
What he doesn’t suspect, of course, is that the woman he meets, named Judy, is also “Madeleine”, the woman he dreams about.
Novak plays both roles. And there is a moment where, as Judy, she allows the Stewart character to make her over into “Madeleine.” She walks toward him, as he’s caught up in a frenzy of desire and she feels a great sadness because she has come to love Stewart and realizes he can’t see her; he only sees the woman in his dream. Few actors could pull off the double role with such heartache and mystery. It is Novak’s best work.
Kim Novak was born Marilyn Pauline Novak in Chicago. Her parents were teachers. In high school, Novak got work modeling for a local department store. She wanted to be a painter and won a scholarship to the Art Institute of Chicago but she ended up going to Los Angeles on a lark with friends. They stood in line to be extras in a movie. An agent noticed her striking beauty and arranged for a screen test with Columbia Pictures, and she was signed to a contract.
Novak took studio acting lessons and made her film debut in the detective film Pushover (1954) with Fred MacMurray, followed right away by the fluffy Phffft (1954) with Jack Lemmon. She had so much natural poise that most people had no idea she was only 21-years-old. Columbia continued to pair her with fatherly older actors. Kim received a Golden Globe nomination for Most Promising Newcomer in 1955, and she had good roles in three films released that year: Against The House, Otto Preminger’s controversial The Man With The Golden Arm, and her breakthtough, Picnic. She received glowing reviews and fans took to her. In 1957, she made Pal Joey (1957) with Frank Sinatra and Rita Hayworth. The film was a hit, but not with the critics. Novak seemed detached in the role. She told the press that she hated her character. In 1958, after making Vertigo, she starred in the gay allegory Bell Book And Candle (1958), a box-office success, but her follow-up, Middle Of The Night (1959), was a bomb despite her good reviews.
Unfortunately, the hype that Columbia generated for Novak fizzled, and her career began to fade in the early 1960s as the studio system came to an end. She was overpowered by the rise of a new kind of actor, and she claimed that she didn’t have the drive to campaign for good roles like other actors did, so she just took the best of what she was offered.
She made several dumb films between 1960 and 1964, before hanging her hopes on the role of Mildred Rogers in a remake of Of Human Bondage (1964) opposite Laurence Harvey. Despite the pedigree, this one tanked at the box-office too. Later that same year, she starred in Billy Wilder’s sex romp Kiss Me, Stupid (1964) with Dean Martin, but the film got intensely hostile reviews and was condemned by religious groups. In 1965, Kim played the title role in the satire The Amorous Adventures Of Moll Flanders (1965), and married her co-star, Richard Johnson. The marriage only lasted a year. Novak took some time off, before agreeing to star in The Legend Of Lylah Clare (1968), a film so bad that it was hardly released at all.
Novak didn’t have much of a career after that. Following The Great Bank Robbery (1969), she took another four-years off. By then, the only work she could get was in a television film called The Third Girl From The Left (1973) and a segment in the British horror anthology film Tales That Witness Madness (1973). She ended the 1970s with a role in Just A Gigolo (1978) with David Bowie, a critical and commercial failure.
She was good in the fun Agatha Christie/Miss Marple mystery The Mirror Crack’d (1980), with Angela Lansbury, Elizabeth Taylor, Tony Curtis, Edward Fox, and Rock Hudson. Yet, for the rest of the decade, Novak was out of movies and out of luck. The best she could do was as part of the ensemble of television’s Malibu (1983), and 19 episodes of the series Falcon Crest (1986-89).
Her final film is Liebestraum (1991), in which she played a terminally ill woman. It was an unhappy experience for Novak, who clashed with director Mike Figgis.
Novak now says that she never reached her real potential. She claims she just wasn’t meant for Hollywood life.
Since 1976, Novak has been married to a veterinarian who shares her passion for animals. They live on a ranch in rural Oregon where they raise llamas and horses, and where she finally got around to being the painter she wanted to be in her teens.