Wednesday, August 20, 2008

Miss Novak

TCM recently devoted a day to the films of Kim Novak, and Stanley Fish wrote this New York Times piece called "Giving Kim Novak Her Due" (with a lot of enthusiastic reader comments).

You can see why Novak continues to fascinate a lot of people. Everybody in the '50s was trying to develop overdeveloped bombshells to compete with Marilyn Monroe -- even Fox was trying, and they already had Monroe -- and Novak was the most manufactured of these new stars, someone who hadn't even had a speaking part before Columbia signed her and decided to turn her into an instant sex goddess. (The buildup for Novak in Pushover was huge; rarely has so much publicity been devoted to a fairly small noir.) Even Jayne Mansfield had been a success on Broadway before she came to Hollywood; Novak was entirely a creation of Harry Cohn. Yet her own discomfort with the sex-kitten image was always visible; unlike the other Marilyn Monroe knockoffs, and unlike Monroe herself, she wasn't doing much to sell the image, and instead seemed to be working against it. And because she wound up getting loaned out to Paramount for Vertigo, where her part eerily mirrors her own life and her transformation into a synthetic, artificial sex symbol at the hands of a powerful man (coincidentally, since the part wasn't intended for her), it makes the fascination even greater; her most famous movie happens to be the one that almost seems like it's about her.

That said, I always found the idea of Novak more fascinating than the actual onscreen Novak. Too often I watch a movie with her and find myself wishing that someone else were playing the part; Bell, Book and Candle needs a charming light comedienne (the original playwas written for Lili Palmer and Rex Harrison), and instead Novak weighs it down with her dour attitude; Kiss Me, Stupid proves that Novak couldn't play a parody of Marilyn Monroe -- since that's what the character is, like most of Billy Wilder's post-Some Like It Hot characters -- any more than she could be Monroe.

I think the director who worked best with her was George Sidney, who had a great eye for beautiful women and was able to get some energy out of her. But even in Pal Joey, she's still overshadowed by Rita Hayworth.

Here's Novak in Sidney's over-the-top but fun Jeanne Eagels.

Interestingly, when the James Wong Howe, who photographed Picnic, was asked about Novak, he said that she was beautiful "from the waist up. Below, she was very hippy." Having read that, I'll have to go back and check whether or not directors/cinematographers actually tried to photograph her with that idea in mind. (Obviously that wouldn't say anything bad about her; many if not most movie actors are photograph to emphasize their strong points and de-emphasize their less strong points. That's what the glamour factory's all about, making it seem like people have no flaws.)


Thad said...

That article is interesting, but your take is better, and closer to my own. Novak's a little too heavy-handed for my own tastes, though Hitchcock got a good performance out of her in Vertigo (which I hope will be properly mastered this fall).

Pete Emslie wrote about her awhile ago, accompanied with one of his famous caricatures, here.

As for Monroe knockoffs, Sheree North was probably the worst one, as evidenced in a failure like The Lieutenant Wore Skirts, or the monstrosity, How to Be Very, Very Popular (which ended up being, as Monroe predicted, very, very unpopular... and they say she wasn't bright!).

Jacqueline T. Lynch said...

Thanks for an interesting post, and the link to the article. The number of comments to that article alone is remarkable, and the passion with which the readers agree or disagree.

I find Miss Novak's work in film compelling for its unusual quality of fighting against being typecast while at the same time being typecast. The often repeated quote "she wore her beauty like a crown of thorns" says it well. No wonder Hitchcock was so successful using her in "Vertigo" with its many double images. She seemed always to convey a double image, another persona hidden beneath the surface. That this quality seemed natural to her and not intentionally played was what made her unusual.