Kim Novak is someone who I discovered when I saw Picnic (1955) for the first time. I had heard of her and knew what she looked like, but I had never actually seen any of her films until I saw Picnic. She wasn’t my original draw to the film either. I originally recorded it because I was a fan of co-star William Holden and I also love the overwrought melodramas of the 1950s. My initial impression of Novak was that she was very pretty but she seemed somewhat stiff. I began wondering if it was all style and no substance when it came to Novak. However, as I kept watching her in Picnic, I noticed that she didn’t seem as stiff as she had in the opening scene. I found myself warming up to her.
In Picnic, the crux of Novak’s character, Madge, is that she feels that she is only wanted and appreciated for her looks. Her mother insists that Madge seal the deal with her rich upper crust boyfriend Alan, before her looks begin to fade. Madge is 19, by the way. Alan talks about and treats Madge like she’s a trophy on his arm. Madge begins to resent everyone only focusing on her looks and not showing any regard for her wants, needs and desires. Novak was very skilled in bringing the conflicted Madge to life. On one hand, Madge doesn’t want to disappoint her mother; but on the other hand, she wants to live her own life and not skate by on her looks, even if that path looks uncertain. Madge spends much of the film battling with her own wants and needs, versus those of her mother, boyfriend and the hot, mysterious, and exciting drifter William Holden.
After Picnic, I remember making a point of seeing Novak in some of her other films. I saw Bell, Book and Candle co-starring James Stewart. This film allowed the audience to see Novak as another type of character–a beautiful woman afraid to fall in love. In this film, Novak plays a beautiful witch who lives in Greenwich Village in New York City. Novak develops a crush on Stewart and ends up casting a love spell on him when she discovers he’s engaged to marry another woman. The love spell causes Stewart to fall in love with Novak instead. Soon Novak finds herself falling in love with Stewart and she’s faced with a choice to make: Fall in love with Stewart and lose her magical powers or keep her powers and let Stewart go. Novak plays it cool in this film and is very adept at showing the progression of her character falling in love. Despite being very beautiful and being labeled as one of the 1950s sex symbols of Hollywood, Novak’s characters are never overt in their sexuality, unlike someone like Marilyn Monroe.
One of Novak’s most famous films is her turn in Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo. Novak is cast as one of Hitchcock’s typical icy blondes, but she brings so much to her complicated, somewhat dual role. In this film, Novak must portray the beautiful and tragic Madeline who Stewart meets and falls in love with. Later, she portrays the small-town girl, Judy, who of course resembles Madeline, and agrees to allow Stewart to transform her into his lost love. As Madeline, Novak plays the wispy blonde, who is so beautiful but with an underlying vulnerability. As Judy, Novak plays a more average looking woman (more like a gorgeous woman wearing too much heavy makeup) from Kansas who is trying to make it in big city San Francisco. She is brassier and more no-nonsense than Madeline. Of course there is more to the story than meets the eye and Novak was fascinating to watch.
Novak is a highly underrated actress who I believe wasn’t taken seriously because she was so beautiful. In all her films, she brings charm and also an underlying vulnerability that makes her a joy to watch on screen. Today, Kim Novak lives on a ranch in a small town in Southern Oregon. It’s exciting to think that one of my favorite Classic Hollywood stars is still alive and thriving in a town only about 3.5 hours south of me. Maybe someday, I’ll make it back down there and maybe run into Kim Novak on the street or something. I can always hope!
My favorite Kim Novak films:
-Picnic (1955). I already talked about this film above; but this film deals with a drifter (William Holden) who interrupts the tranquility in a small Kansas town. Most of the action occurs at the town’s annual Labor Day picnic. Novak portrays Madge, a beautiful nineteen year old woman who is dating Alan Benson (Cliff Robertson), one of the town’s most eligible bachelors. Novak falls for Holden, much to the chagrin of Robertson and her mother (Betty Field).
–Bell, Book and Candle (1958). Described above as well. This film depicts the story of a beautiful witch (Novak) who casts a spell on a man (James Stewart) whom she’s been admiring from afar. Soon, she must decide whether to fall in love with Stewart and give up her magical powers, or let Stewart go in order to retain her powers.
–Vertigo (1958). Mentioned briefly above. This film is so complex that it would be hard to describe it and do it any justice. This is a film that has to be watched and watched intently, not casually. A couple weeks ago, I watched this film in the theater and was fascinated by how much of the film I had forgotten or hadn’t pieced together the pieces of the story. Once I had the story figured out, I found it amazing and captivating. In a nutshell, this film tells the story of a man, James Stewart, who falls in love with a mysterious blonde and loses her in a tragic accident. He meets another woman, Kim Novak, who resembles his lost love. Stewart goes to work transforming his new girl into the girl he lost.
–Boys’ Night Out (1962). This 1962 comedy is silly and definitely not worthy of any sort of award, but I love it. There’s just something about early 1960s comedies. In this film, Novak plays a college student who rents an apartment from a group of men (James Garner, Tony Randall, Howard Morris and Howard Duff). The men are all married, except for Garner. The husbands are bored with their wives and their day-to-day routine and want to set up an apartment to have a fling. They base their plan on the same tactics their boss uses to have his fling. Novak rents the apartment not knowing of their plan to commit adultery and the men don’t know that Novak is pretending to romance them as a means to gather material for her college thesis on the sexual life of the middle class male. Hilarity ensues.
-Pushover (1954). This is a really great noir and is Novak’s film debut. Novak portrays the beautiful girlfriend of a man who robs a bank and both of them are now on the lam. Fred MacMurray co-stars as an undercover cop who is tasked with setting up a stakeout in an apartment across the street from Novak’s. While watching her, MacMurray ends up falling in love with Novak. Soon Novak is trying to corrupt him to join her side and MacMurray is conflicted between his love for Novak and his duty to his job and the police department.
–Pal Joey (1957). This is a musical starring Frank Sinatra, Rita Hayworth and Novak. Sinatra portrays Joey, a singer and charmer who can make pretty much any woman fall for him. The only problem is that he’s a complete cad. Sinatra meets Novak, a chorus girl in one of his shows. He genuinely seems to have real feelings for her. Sinatra dreams of opening his own nightclub but needs money. He appeals to an old flame, Hayworth, who used to also work as a stripper. She married a wealthy man and is now widowed. Sinatra decides to romance Hayworth in order to convince her to give him money for his nightclub. Throughout the film, Sinatra and Hayworth use each other and continues to romance Novak. The love-triangle continues throughout the film until Sinatra is forced to make a decision.