Airing tonight: Kim Novak: Live from the TCM Classic Film Festival. Taped at last year’s festival in Hollywood, this one-hour interview special kicks off a tribute night to Novak. Here, Michael Wilmington shares his appreciation for this actress.
My favorite Kim Novak line comes in “Pal Joey,” Columbia’s dubiously altered, shamefully bowdlerized but still entertaining adaptation of the great musical classic. Novak’s Linda English says to Frank Sinatra’s cabaret Casanova Joey Evans, in a girlish, amused, deliberately non-provocative voice, “You’re right. I do have a great shape. Confidentially, I’m stacked.”
Stacked she certainly was: a willowy but sumptuous blonde bombshell with short-cropped platinum hair and a 37-inch bosom that never knew a brassiere (“That’s right!” her “Vertigo” director Alfred Hitchcock once said tartly to François Truffaut. “She’s particularly proud of that!”)
Novak, born in 1933, was a Chicago railroad worker’s daughter and a natural beauty with haunting eyes and a vulnerable air, who became a movie star in her early twenties, with 1954’s film noir “Pushover” directed by her lover Richard Quine.
She then became a megastar with 1955’s “Picnic,” directed by the explosive Joshua Logan, in which – as playwright William Inge’s small-town Kansas princess Madge – Novak danced her way into the hearts and loins of William Holden’s ex-football star/drifter Hal, and many more of the males of a susceptible nation.
Her movies of course capitalize on the classic Novak image: a gorgeous fair-haired girl who’s a little troubled by her own long-legged, statuesque beauty, a bit hesitant about pushing herself forward, slinky and self-conscious, sometimes suspicious of men, a traffic-stopping but vulnerable glamour girl with brains and surprising sensitivity.
Like Marilyn Monroe, who often played it dumb, the real-life Novak was a reader. (Sinatra, one of her dates, wooed her with first editions, while Sammy Davis Jr. hit the jackpot in one of the more famous secret love affairs of the ’50s.)
By 1964, she was considered past her prime and, when she played Polly the Pistol, the girlish hooker (with the belly-button jewel and the requisite heart of gold) in Billy Wilder’s “Kiss Me, Stupid,” she shared in the movie’s lousy notices.
Today “Kiss Me” is rightly regarded as a flawed classic, and if original star Peter Sellers hadn’t had his heart attack and dropped out in mid shooting, we might see it as a masterpiece, as some of the French do (“Embrasse-moi, Idiote!”)
But maybe she was too much a creation of the ’50s, of the last fugitive years of the Golden Age, a kind of platinum blonde Jekyll and Hyde. Kim Novak could play it naïve and lower class, or tony and glamorous, and sometimes she played both in the same movie, as in her masterpiece, as Madeleine/Judy in Hitchcock’s “Vertigo.”
She perhaps wasn’t a natural actress. She gave some awkward performances. But she was a natural-born star. Kim was one of the movie dream girls of my youth, and I still get a pang looking at her. Confidentially, she’s stacked.