Kim Novak, natural-born star, honored with TCM tribute

One way to Kim Novak’s heart was through first editions.

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.”

Kim Novak as Judy in Hitchcock’s “Vertigo” (1958).

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.)

Kim Novak became a megastar with 1955’s “Picnic.” By 1964, she was considered past her prime.

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.

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Merry Christmas!

I hope your holidays are joyous and that Santa Baby showered you with lovely gifts and rapt attention. Here are a few film favorites of the season. Enjoy!

“Holiday Affair” from 1949 stars Robert Mitchum and Janet Leigh. It’s not film noir but Mitchum lends his bad-boy charm nonetheless. Don Hartman directs.

James Stewart co-stars with the enchanting Kim Novak in 1958′s “Bell, Book and Candle,” directed by Richard Quine. Of course, they both bow to the real star, Siamese kitty Pyewacket.

Film Noir Blonde reveals Pyewacket’s offscreen capers here.

The dark dream sequence in Frank Capra’s 1946 Christmas classic “It’s a Wonderful Life” is pure film noir.

Michael Wilmington reviews “It’s a Wonderful Life.”

And, in case you missed it earlier this month, FNB wrote about “Lady in the Lake,” an experimental film noir with a Christmas setting.

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Film noir feline stars: The cat in ‘Bell, Book and Candle’

More on the most famous kitties in film noir

The Cat in “Bell, Book and Candle” 1958

Name: Cy A. Meese

Character Name: Pyewacket

Kim Novak catches James Stewart with help from her cherished pet.

Bio: Kim Novak and James Stewart starred in two movies together in 1958. One was the classic Hitchcock neo noir “Vertigo.” The other, now lesser known, was the lighter-toned “Bell, Book and Candle” by director Richard Quine, based on the hit Broadway romantic comedy by John Van Druten. In the film, Novak plays Gillian Holroyd, a stylish New Yorker and successful store owner with a knack for witchcraft.

But, despite her busy schedule and relentlessly chic wardrobe, Gillian is tired of spending her nights, especially Christmas Eve, talking shop at the campy Zodiac nightclub in the Village with her fellow sorcerers (witch Elsa Lanchester and warlock Jack Lemmon). You know, eye of newt and toe of frog, wool of bat and tongue of dog. Blah, blah, blah.

Gillian much prefers the company of her lovely cat Pyewacket (Cy A. Meese) and flirting with her tall, gray and handsome neighbor Shepherd Henderson (Stewart). After Gillian learns that Shep is engaged to her rival (Janice Rule), she calls on her blue-eyed, gray-furred companion for help in turning the romantic tables.

As the witch’s “familiar,” the role of Pyewacket is pivotal to the film and surely one of the most significant feline roles in Hollywood history. Not only is Gillian’s beloved Pye the agent for casting a spell on Shep, this stunning and eminently self-assured kitty manages to reunite the lovers after they hit a few bumps on the road to bewitchment.

The real-life puss who played Pyewacket later became a Manhattan legend. A life-long New Yorker from a prominent family, Cy was a classically trained actor and had worked steadily in theater before trying his paw at movies. Still, despite his success on stage and screen, Cy’s first love was reading and in 1960 he left acting to open a shop on Greenwich Avenue named “Book, Bell and Candle.”

Besides his excellent taste in titles, he was known for his uncommonly cushy sofas and for encouraging customers to nap in between browsing the aisles. (Tennessee Williams, Truman Capote and John Cheever were regular snoozers.) In 1968, Cy opened a second location on London’s Cheshire Street and divided his time between the cities until he died peacefully in his sleep in 1982.

Need a bigger Jimmy Stewart fix? Don’t forget the Christmas Eve classic “It’s a Wonderful Life,” which offers a healthy dose of noir amid the heartwarming joy.

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