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Beautiful, bashful blonde

by Tavo Amador

Movie star Kim Novak is known for her dual roles in Alfred Hitchcock's "Vertigo." Photo: Outsider Enterprises
Movie star Kim Novak is known for her dual roles in Alfred Hitchcock's "Vertigo." Photo: Outsider Enterprises  

Kim Novak (b. Marilyn Novak, 1933) is best-known for her dual roles of Madeleine and Judy in Alfred Hitchcock's San Francisco-set "Vertigo" (1958). On May 20, she will appear at the Castro Theatre under the auspices of impresario Marc Huestis to discuss her career. "Vertigo" will be screened. It may be her most famous film, but she made others that caught her shy radiance.

Novak had come to Los Angeles from Chicago and worked as a refrigerator trade-show model, "Miss Deepfreeze." Her voluptuous beauty got her an unbilled bit in RKO's "The French Line" (1953), starring Jane Russell. An agent took her to Columbia, where she was signed to a long-term contract and well-cast in "Pushover" (1954), as a moll for whom cop Fred MacMurray goes rogue. Her mysterious aura impressed Harry Cohn, the infamous studio head. He was looking for a replacement for Columbia's longterm but fading "Love Goddess," Rita Hayworth, and decided Novak was the one.

She made two minor films, then Otto Preminger borrowed her for "The Man With a Golden Arm" (1955), an early, powerful look at drug addiction starring Frank Sinatra. She impressed as his sympathetic girlfriend. The film was a smash.

Cohn then gave her Madge in gay playwright William Inge's "Picnic," (1956) a part created on stage by Kim Stanley. Joshua Logan directed this haunting study of small-town Americana set in Kansas. Novak perfectly caught Madge's restlessness - a girl tired of "just being pretty." Itinerant, virile William Holden arrives on a railroad car, and nothing is the same again. He and Novak had great chemistry, and in a celebrated, erotic sequence, danced to "Moonlight." She blossomed into an intensely desirable woman. Critics raved, and audiences filled theatres. "Box-Office" magazine listed her as the US' most popular star, followed by Holden, Doris Day, Marilyn Monroe, Susan Hayward, Deborah Kerr, Marlon Brando, Frank Sinatra, Grace Kelly, and Elizabeth Taylor.

Her salary didn't match her fame, and she grumbled to no avail. She looked stunning in "The Eddie Duchin Story" (1956), a biopic in which she played the popular pianist's (Tyrone Power) first wife. She was even more beautiful as legendary 1920s stage star "Jeanne Eagles," who died young from drugs and alcohol. She overcame the poor script to give a competent performance, although critics sniped. She earned $13,000 for it, while co-star Jeff Chandler was paid $100,000. Her agent claimed she was worth $300,000 per picture.

She looked lovely but was miscast in "Pal Joey" (1957), billed behind Hayworth and Sinatra in this uneven but hugely popular version of the Rodgers and Hart musical, partially filmed on location in San Francisco. Hayworth showed plenty of fire in her last film for Columbia, and stole the notices. Novak inherited her dressing room, and praised her predecessor's kindness, lamenting that she wasn't good at standing up for herself. Novak didn't have that problem, and was soon considered "difficult," demanding a bigger salary and better material.


Kim Novak, with William Holden, in a publicity still from  

Vera Miles, whom Hitchcock had used in "The Wrong Man" (1956), was his fist choice for "Vertigo," but she was pregnant and unavailable. He borrowed Novak, whom he had considered for 1955's "The Trouble with Harry," but decided she was too seductive. As the object of James Stewart's obsession, she is appropriately enigmatic. The film did well, but was less popular than four of Novak's previous five pictures. Over the years, its critical reputation has grown remarkably, as has her performance, although she had been and would again be better.

She was breathtaking and moving as the witch who longs to be human opposite Stewart and Jack Lemmon in "Bell, Book, and Candle" (1958). Her joy at shedding a tear when she finally becomes mortal is deeply touching. The film wasn't a big hit. She and Frederic March were good enjoying a May-December romance in "Middle of the Night" (1959), based on Paddy Chayefsky's play, but it didn't do well. Neither did "Strangers When We Meet" (1960), about adultery in suburbia, with Novak and Kirk Douglas as the guilty lovers. They quarreled, and the film was neither a critical nor a box-office success.

Her battles with Columbia escalated, and they sent her to MGM for "Boys Night Out," a poor comedy in which she played a sociologist assessing the behavior of middle-aged bachelors, including one played by James Garner. Made later but released earlier by Columbia, "The Notorious Landlady" (1962) cast her as a London cockney opposite Lemmon and Fred Astaire, another dud comedy. She and the studio parted company.

Her Mildred in the remake of "Of Human Bondage" was harshly compared to Bette Davis' 1934 performance, but co-star Laurence Harvey was no help, nor was director Ken Hughes. Billy Wilder's tasteless, misogynistic "Kiss Me, Stupid" (1964) further hurt her career, although she kept working, if unable to regain her earlier success.

She was well-cast in Robert Aldrich's "The Legend of Lylah Clare" (1968) as an unknown actress playing a legendary movie star. Most of her subsequent films were poor. She and Marlene Dietrich were trapped with David Bowie in the disappointing "Just a Gigolo" (1978), but she and Elizabeth Taylor were effective trading bitchy barbs as aging, rival film queens in Agatha Christie's "The Mirror Crack'd" (1980). Quips Novak, "Marina, darling, I see you not only kept your fabulous figure, but added so much to it." Taylor purrs, "There are only two things I don't like about you, Lola. Your face."

She had a recurring role on TV's long-running "Falcon's Crest" (1986-87) and made her final screen appearance in Mike Figgis "Liebestraum" (1991).

Her marriage to actor Richard Johnson lasted barely a year, but in 1976 she wed veterinarian Robert Malley. They live in Oregon surrounded by the animals she has always loved.

Columbia seldom used her properly, yet Novak's acting looks better and better in hindsight. Her best work has a mysterious vulnerability. She was much more than "pretty," and demonstrated that on several memorable occasions.


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