Kim Novak: The 'Vertigo' Star Who Walked Away In '66, Then And Now
American actress Kim Novak poses circa 1956. (Photo by Archive Photos/Getty Images)
Kim Novak, born Marilyn Pauline Novak, defined Hollywood’s fiercely independent woman when Tinseltown still operated as anachronistic as cavemen. She changed her name due to some Monroe woman staking claim over “Marilyn” and her antediluvian boss at Columbia Pictures, Harry Cohn. She overcame a traumatic rape as a teen and bipolar disorder to become one of silver screens all-time legends. Novak’s iconic work in Alfred Hitchcock’s “Vertigo,” as well as working alongside Frank Sinatra in “The Man with the Golden Arm” and “Pal Joey” cemented her status as a star. Nevertheless, she wasn’t afraid to throw away the glitz and glamour for her principles and her sanity. To think it all started with refrigerator ads...
From Refrigerator Fox to Columbia Pictures
On a break from college, Novak took a cross-country trip working as a refrigerator model. As she recalled, “In these little maid costumes, we opened the refrigerator doors and sang, ‘There’s no business like Thor business.’” While in Los Angeles on the refrigeration tour, she got work as an extra in a couple of films. An agent spotted her and she signed a deal with Columbia pictures, which was a blessing and a curse.
Kim Novak Was Friends (Or More) With Frank Sinatra
Her first major success came in 1956 with “Picnic.” Working with William Holden and Rosalind Russell, Novak won a Golden Globe and a BAFTA nomination. Over the next two years, she worked with Sinatra twice and mixed a little pleasure with business. “Frank Sinatra and I had a nice, friendly relationship at times," Novak said. "It was a bit more than that. I had a relationship with Frank, yeah. He was a very sexy guy. He could be kind and gentle – and he could be cocky, not wanting to listen to anybody but himself.”
Columbia Pictures Kept Novak Away From Sammy Davis Jr.
Of course, Sinatra wasn’t her most famous rapport with a Rat Pack member. Novak and Sammy Davis Jr. attempted a relationship but her loathsome boss, Harry Cohn put an end to that. “They refused to let me go near Sammy’s house,” said Novak. “And I loved his family – they were so wonderful. Sammy had already lost one eye in an accident and Harry Cohn threatened to take out the other one. I’m sure he would have got his gangster friends to do it. Cohn was definitely in with the mob.”
Even in the face of violence, Novak showed her stubborn streak, “something inside of me rebelled when I was told not to see him. I didn’t think it was anybody’s business. If he had been a bad man, a dangerous man, then the studio might have had reason—but simply because he was black? It “wasn’t a romance so much as a friendship with a beautiful man. He was so sweet and good…”
Vertigo Was Kim Novak's Highlight
Of course, Novak’s most iconic performance came in one of Alfred Hitchcock’s few box office disasters. However, sometimes a fine wine just needs to breathe. Recently, the British Film Institute voted Vertigo the greatest film ever. While some actors famously struggled working with Hitchcock, Novak embraced the challenge.
“I didn’t find him controlling whatsoever,” Novak told The Telegraph. “I found him a joy.” In a 2003 interview with MacGuffin, she went on to say, “[Hitchcock] didn’t make me feel ‘less than.’ He never said, ‘You’re not doing it right.” On that set she found a kindred spirit in Jimmy Stewart. “What I would do after a take is to look in Jimmy Stewart’s eyes … I used Jimmy to give me what I needed to keep going and to know that I was on the right path with it … So, Hitchcock wouldn’t say anything about my work in the movie but, on the other hand, he wouldn’t complain, either.”
She admired Stewart’s ability to rise above the pettiness and self-absorption of Hollywood. “He lived in the midst of all that vanity and was never tainted by it. We’d just hang out, because we were both real. It was hard for me to believe that somebody could live in Hollywood for so long, right in the middle of Beverly Hills, and stay real. He deserves a big trophy just for that; one that says: ‘I was real.’ I’d like that same trophy.”
Fighting The System
Besides viciously expressing himself as a racist, Cohn also took financial advantage of Novak at every turn. “He screwed me every way he could . . . of course except for the one way that counts.” She was forced to boycott work in order to receive her just due, receiving double her wages after saying enough is enough. “I don’t like to have anyone take advantage of me,” she later said. She was forced to tolerate Cohn’s neanderthal behavior. "I’d be waiting for a meeting with him and he’d say: 'Send the dumb Polack in, send in the fat Polack.'"
When the industry started offering her little more than scantily clad arm candy roles, she bailed. “I wanted to be appreciated for what I was as a person and what I had to offer. I didn’t feel my work meant anything there. I knew I was a good artist and I wanted to express my feelings. Not the writer’s or the director’s; I wanted to express me. I wanted to play the role of somebody who was mentally ill. I think I could have done a really good job, because I knew those feelings.”
After a mudslide destroyed her Los Angeles home, Novak took drastic measures, leaving Hollywood in 1966. “So I rented this van and took what was important to me. I took photographs, I took art stuff, and I thought: ‘That’s what’s important.’ The mudslide was telling me: ‘Your time is up; take off while you can. Get ahead of the game. Don’t wait till you’re too old and wrinkled. Then nobody will want you any more.’” She happily lived in Big Sur and later in Oregon after a fire burned down her coastal home, married to an equine veterinarian.
Tags: Kim Novak | Ladies | Then And Now | Vertigo
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