By Andrea Gronvall andreagronvall@aol.com

The Gronvall Report: Kim Novak on Being Kim Novak

Hollywood in the 1950s was both the right and wrong place and time for being Kim Novak. It was the right spot and moment for ingénue model Marilyn Pauline Novak to be groomed, promoted, and zealously protected by Columbia Pictures mogul Harry Cohn as his answer to 20th Century-Fox’s Marilyn Monroe. But by the time he died in 1958, the first tremors of America’s postwar youthquake rocked  Hollywood, and the high-gloss, sophisticated adult pictures that Novak made under his aegis were fading away. Although in real life she was more comfortable in California’s counterculture, her professional roots were in the studio system, and her transition in the 1960s to a changing industry landscape was not smooth.

Novak has retreated from the business a couple of times, but it does look as though at 82 she has finally given up acting. Still, she enjoys public appearances and the interviews entailed. The memories of drubbings some critics gave her continue to sting, but it’s a mystery (to me, at any rate) why she was so savaged. Go back and look at the body of her work at Columbia from 1954 to 1962: at least half-a-dozen of her pictures are standouts. Hers is a memorable presence, beginning with Pushover [1954], the first of four pictures she would do with director Richard Quine. In that tense and compact noir, she she’s a soft-on-the-outside, steely-on-the-inside femme fatale who double-crosses her gangster lover with an undercover Los Angeles detective (Fred MacMurray). Joshua Logan’s Picnic [1955], based on William Inge’s play, was her breakout film; it showcased her in a completely different role, as a sweet, genuine teen swept off her feet by a restless ladies’ man (William Holden) who passes through her small Kansas town.

Also for Columbia, she held her own opposite Frank Sinatra in Otto Preminger’s The Man With the Golden Arm [1955], based on Nelson Algren’s gritty novel about drug addiction, and co-starred with Frederic March in Delbert Mann’s prestigious Middle of the Night [1959], which was in competition for the Palme d’Or at Cannes. And in Quine’s Strangers When We Meet [1960}, cool reserve masks the unhappiness of her neglected suburban housewife and ambivalence over her affair with a neighboring architect (Kirk Douglas).

For my money, her most enduring picture at Columbia is Quine’s Bell, Book and Candle [1958], about witches passing as Greenwich Village beatniks and bohemians. James Stewart got top billing, but it’s Novak’s film; she’s at her most sultry and subtly comic, shining amid a terrific ensemble that includes Jack Lemmon, Elsa Lanchester, Hermione Gingold and Ernie Kovacs. But she will always be best known for the first film she made with Stewart, when Cohn loaned her to Paramount to play a murdered socialite and the woman who impersonates her in Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo [1958]. Although it didn’t do great box office during its original release, the film steadily gained acclaim over subsequent decades, eventually in 2012 toppling (after 50 years) Orson Welles’ Citizen Kane to lead the annual “Sight & Sound” poll as the best film ever made.

Born in Chicago of Czech descent, Novak has, over the years, made trips back to the Midwest to visit family. On her most recent return she was the featured guest of Chicago Prague Days, where she met her fans at a screening of Vertigo. She graciously sat down with me to recall her time in Hollywood.

 

Andrea Gronvall: When you were making Vertigo, did you or anybody else involved have any hint that it would be one of the greatest movies of all time?

Kim Novak: No, not a clue. When Harry Cohn loaned me out from Columbia Pictures, he said, “You know, I think it’s a lousy script, but Alfred Hitchcock’s doing it, and I think he’s a good director. So, go ahead.” I liked it, because it was exciting to play a dual role. And I loved getting away from Columbia Pictures, because working for Harry Cohn was not easy. I loved the idea of working with Jimmy Stewart, who I hadn’t worked with before. He turned out to be the best, nicest person I’ve ever worked with. He was so kind and endearing. I always think of him like wearing a pair of morning slippers that you’d had all your life, with that comfortable feeling that made you feel like you wanted to come to work every day, wanted to be with him. The thing that was hard for me to get: he lived in Hollywood all that time. How could he have been such a gentle person, and have lived in Hollywood all his life?

AG: When you first arrived in Hollywood, what was the biggest shock to your system?

KN: The whole thing was just overwhelming to me. It was so foreign. What got to me was that they immediately wanted to change you. They sat me down in the makeup chair, and said, “Okay, here’s what we want to do. Let’s give you a Joan Crawford mouth.” Dark red lips were in fashion, not pale lips. Then they looked at the charts, and picked out the eyebrows of someone else, and so on, to make me over.

AG: Like a composite figure.

KN: Yes, a composite of everything popular then. By the time I was ready for the screen test, I’d lost any resemblance to me; I couldn’t identify with anything. And so, before the cameras started rolling, I ran into the ladies’ room, and smeared off all that I could, to soften as much as I could. Once the cameras rolled, they couldn’t change it, and I think that’s what saved me, what allowed me to keep my own identity. And I insisted on keeping my last name, even though they didn’t want a Middle European name. I think that fighting for those little things helped in the long run. [laughing] Bohemians are known to be stubborn.

AG: In the movie business, you often do have to fight to survive.

KN: But I’m not the fighting type, so I did it sneaky-like.

AG: Well, when you’re an actor, on the screen or on the stage, your job is to embody a character. However, for screen actors who want to be more than character actors, another level to master is molding a film persona. They have to protect those facets unique to them, things that will help distinguish their movie careers.

KN: That’s what we’re talking about, yes: a persona.

AG: And not just actors; for instance, whatever he was like in real life, Hitchcock cultivated an on-camera persona which made his brand instantly recognizable. Somewhere I read that Hitchcock gave you credit for ideas you brought to the film. Is that true?

 

KN: No. Alfred Hitchcock was a brilliant director who knew exactly what he wanted, and did exactly as he wanted. But Otto Preminger did [give me credit], and so did Billy Wilder, and Dick Quine.

AG: Richard Quine was underrated.

KN: He was totally underrated, exactly. And different people I worked with on Middle of the Night, like Paddy Chayefsky, were also open. He was a brilliant writer, but he worked closely with the directors, as a director, even though he was the writer. And he worked with the actors; you could talk with him, and contribute. Paddy Chayefsky was great. I think of his as a director, even though Delbert Mann was the director [on that picture].

AG: You keep up with new movies, right?

KN: Yes, I vote every year. They send me all those videos [Academy screeners].

AG: Surely it hasn’t escaped your attention that there are fewer roles for women now than there used to be, especially for women of a certain age?

KN: I don’t know that there were ever that many roles for women. It’s always easier for a younger woman to get a role. And it’s always easier for a man to get a role.

AG: But more and more A-list actresses are producing their own films in order to ensure a supply of good roles. If you’d committed to that route back in the day, how might your career have looked?

KN: Here’s the thing: Harry Cohn was a difficult man, but he knew the motion picture industry, and knew a good film from a bad film, and what script was good for whom. He was the only one who knew how to run that studio. When he died, there was nobody who knew how to take authority. The studio went to hell because nobody knew how to do anything, other than pick stupid beach party movies. Once he left, I had to leave, too, because they didn’t know what to do with me.

 

AG: So let’s talk about another film that you made [post-Columbia],

Kiss Me, Stupid [1964}. The restored version has been released on DVD by Olive Films, a young company that, coincidentally, is based right here in your hometown. It’s a great restoration, and you look great in it, so it’s hard to understand the controversy surrounding its theatrical release. Could you walk me through that?

 

KN: The Legion of Decency stopped that movie from being released in so many places. I mean it’s unbelievable how they could have considered it scandalous, and I think part of that was about who played the male lead. Ray Walston wound up taking over the role after Peter Sellers suffered heart attacks. And I think if Sellers had been able to complete the movie, they wouldn’t have considered it such a dirty joke. But they felt that Walston seemed too wholesome of a man to have played the part [of a scheming, adulterous song writer]. I really don’t understand why.

 

AG: That movie was ahead of its time, in a meta sort of way, because here was Dean Martin lampooning himself, by playing a version of his nightclub act persona. And Billy Wilder was very caustic in his view of show business.

 

KN: That film really hurt Billy Wilder’s feelings. He got really burned out after that.

 

AG: After what? The battle with the Legion of Decency?

 

KN: Oh, yes, because he had felt wonderful about the film. He was so excited, he already had the script ready for the sequel. He couldn’t believe they were so rejecting of that movie. It really cut him to the quick. But by that time I was burned out, too.

 

I already had left the industry by then, really. I came back to do the film because it was with Billy Wilder. I hadn’t yet read the script. But then I read the script and said, “Oh my God, I am so doomed,” because already critics thought I was a bad actress, and stupid. I said even if I play it right, as a dumb blonde, it’s still a no-win situation for me. And that’s exactly what it was: a no-win situation. No shock for me, but it was for Billy Wilder. For me, it was an “I told you so.”

 

AG: But shortly after that you were back with another film, The Amorous Adventures of Moll Flanders [U.K., 1965, directed by Terence Young]. Do you remember that movie with more fondness? Because it’s so much fun to watch.

 

KN: Well, [laughing] I had fun on it. I met Richard Johnson. What can I say? I was a Big Sur hippie at the time, and couldn’t keep living in London, so we stayed married for less than a year. But we remained good friends. You know, he passed away very recently. We spent half an hour on the phone together just a few days before he passed. We stayed close all the way to the end.

 

AG: Looking back now at your career, what was it like be Kim Novak?

 

KN: What was it like? Lonely. Lonely, because I felt isolated from everybody else, because I wasn’t like anyone else in Hollywood. So nobody else really hung out with me, because I was different. I was independent. I felt like a misfit, but at the same time I felt that I had to stand up for what I believed in.

 

AG: That may have been a sad experience, but it was part of what made you a singular actress.

 

KN: A singular actress, but I was not considered a good actress, because I didn’t play by the rules. But to me, being a good actress is being honest.

 

AG: But maybe that’s why a number of your films still stand up: because you were honest, because there was a naturalism there that feels contemporary when we watch these movies today. Take Vertigo: San Francisco doesn’t look like that anymore, and the clothes and cars are of the period, but in his day there wasn’t a more naturalistic actor than Jimmy Stewart.

 

KN: That’s it! That’s right! Jimmy Stewart was the same way. I always say, “I’m not an actor, I’m a reactor.” And Jimmy Stewart was the same. That’s why we were such a good pair, because we reacted off of each other. Kirk Douglas [while making Strangers When We Meet] used to say, “Kimela, let me help you, because your rhythm isn’t always good. I’ll set your pace for you. Look into my eyes and follow my rhythm.” [She mimics Douglas’s darting eyes.] And I didn’t want to look at him while he was standing off-camera, because I didn’t want him giving me rhythm lessons. I’d rather look at the wall offstage than at someone who was being theatrical.

 

7 Responses to “The Gronvall Report: Kim Novak on Being Kim Novak”

  1. YancySkancy says:

    Time has indeed been kind to Novak’s work, particularly that awesome four-film streak of Vertigo, Bell Book and Candle, Middle of the Night and Strangers When We Meet. That last one is my favorite performance of hers, and an excellent, beautifully made film to boot.

  2. Jrynall says:

    What a wonderful story and interview. Thank you! It is gratifying to see the reassessment of her films resulting in such positive terms. I always thought she, as an actress, and her films were under rated and overly criticized. I’m sure it must be very rewarding for her to see not only a renewed interest in her work but also an over due appreciation and re-evaluation of it. Aside from being absolutely gorgeous, she was a unique good actress as well. Good having my opinion of my favorite “movie star” finally confirmed. I’m sure she feels the same way!

  3. John says:

    I always had hoped someone would dig up the Sellers footage and release it but i guess it’ll never happen.
    I know Sellers had Dean hysterical half the time… Love to see those outakes too!
    Walston was ok but Sellers would have changed EVERYTHING.
    I mean COME ON, Walston vs. Peter Sellers…………
    Kiss Me Stupid probably would have been a blockbuster then and an all time classic now, if Sellers had finished it.

  4. I truly admire Kim for doing what she did and taking off all that extra make-up when they were trying to change her! She was so lovely that I can’t imagine why they would want to alter her looks! Good for her. And, yes, she was a great actress!

  5. cadavra says:

    Mention should also be made of Quine’s THE NOTORIOUS LANDLADY, in which she displayed a perfect Cockney accent and held her own with Lemmon and Astaire.

    Also, THE MAN WITH THE GOLDEN ARM was United Artists, not Columbia.

  6. Andrea Gronvall says:

    Cadavra, thanks for the correction. THE MAN WITH THE GOLDEN ARM was indeed a United Artists release. I’m close to neurotic about proofreading, but somehow I missed that. You have done me a service.

    Not with you on THE NOTORIOUS LANDLADY, however. I’m not a huge fan of Blake Edwards, neither as a screenwriter (as he was on THE NOTORIOUS LANDLADY), nor as a director. His humor always struck me as a little forced, at times because of his pacing. Billy Wilder’s bite and comic timing are much more my speed.

  7. David Roesler says:

    “Boys Night Out” is one of my favorite Kim Novak films. Just as Marylyn Monroe was not recognized as a great actress during her film career so too has Kim Novak gone unrecognized. Her screen persona is just as impressive an accomplishment as Monroe’s and should be celebrated by film critics.

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