Kim Novak was an interesting and underappreciated presence in films. Right from the start she was viewed in the shadow of the 1950s reigning sex symbol Marilyn Monroe. In fact that’s why Columbia Pictures signed her in the first place. It was to be their version of Miss Monroe and to replace their ageing sex goddess Rita Hayworth. Her real name was in fact Marilyn. Marilyn Pauline Novak so the Studio quickly changed it to Kim. She was young, vulnerable and would do for their films the same things that the famous MM did for men in hers. But what they hadn’t counted on, what they never count on, is the real differences in each individual human being. An individuality that can never be replicated or reproduced. How many times have we heard about somebody being the “next Bogart” or the next Cary Grant or Clark Gable only to be annoyed and disappointed by the comparison? Still the moguls and the publicists at the studios never seemed to learn and every year we were being introduced to some new incarnation of an old or reigning star. And absurdly enough it still goes on today long after the old studio system has passed into oblivion. Old habits die hard I guess.
Now almost from her first important appearance in the film noir Pushover (1954) Novak’s presence was distinctly different from that of Miss Monroe. She was more quiet, less prone to assert herself, yet she was potently and seductively there. After that came Picnic (1955) the cinematic adaptation of William Inge’s 1953 Pulitzer Prize winning play directed by Joshua Logan the man who had directed it on stage. The report was that Logan didn’t want her in the film. He wanted Janice Rule, the actress who had played the role on stage but Harry Cohan the boss of Columbia Pictures insisted on her. Going so far as to tell Logan that if Novak was off the picture so was he. Or that’s how legend tells it. Looking at the film today we can see how right he was. Much of the others in the cast seemed off in some way. William Holden looks a bit long in the tooth to be playing the hunky drifter whose masculinity upsets many of the townswomen. Rosalind Russell and Susan Strasberg over act their roles while Cliff Robertson, Arthur O’Connell, Nick Adams, Betty Field and Felton come off okay. But the one who holds you to the screen every time she appears is Novak. Everything about her in the part of Madge, the town beauty whose latent sexual fires are stirred by the attractive drifter is right. From the sly glancing way she looks at everyone to the way she resists and objects to being called pretty or beautiful. In its quiet way it is an accurate (or seems to be) portrayal of both sexual repression and sexual awakening, one succeeding the other at just the right time. And either by accident or design Novak hits all the right notes in the part. The critics may have been lukewarm in their response to her performance in that film but the public recognized a star when they saw one. She followed this performance with another terrific one in Otto Preminger’s then controversial film The Man with the Golden Arm (1957). That same year she was cast with Frank Sinatra again in the tepid musical Pal Joey (1957) in which Rita Hayworth also appeared. It wasn’t much of a picture but the potency of Novak shined through again. Then in the following year came her greatest performance in Hitchcock’s Vertigo (1958). The power of both the film and Novak’s performance was not recognized or appreciated until many, many years later. But today it stands out as possibly the best film of Hitchcock’s distinguished career and a milestone for everyone else creatively involved with the film.
Another Novak performance that has gone unrecognized as far as I’m concerned is her portrayal of Mildred, the self centered maid/ waitress in the remake of W. Somerset Maugham’s Of Human Bondage (1964). Bette Davis had done so well playing the part thirty years earlier in the original that the critics couldn’t see past it and slammed Kim because her interpretation was different. But looking at the film today we can see how right on the money her performance is.
As celebrated movie star Kim Novak always seemed uncomfortable and ill at ease. She dealt with it as best she could but didn’t appear to embrace it. It always seemed to be an intrusion that had to be endured. So that when after many films (some good, other not so)in a variety of genres she quietly slipped out of public view, I wasn’t surprised. She had given what she had to give and now it was time to say goodbye.
Today, from all accounts, she his happily retired from the screen and living a fruitful life as a painter/ sculptor who raises horses and llamas with her husband in Oregon and California. Some Kim Novak DVD box sets are being issued so her performances can be appreciated and reassessed. I also think that if anyone deserves a film series dedicated to showing the best of their screen work, Miss Novak is that individual. She might be retired but her films still manifests the incandesce of her on-screen persona.