A salute to Kim Novak
Columbia studio head Harry Cohn wasn’t the easiest person to get a long with, especially for actors.
Take Kim Novak, whom Cohn signed in 1954 to be a rival to Fox’s Marilyn Monroe, and competition for the studio’s own Rita Hayworth. Cohn would call her up and read all the bad reviews she had gotten for her films.
“I would try to make peace,” Novak, 77, says over the phone from the sprawling ranch in Eagle Point, Ore., that she shares with her husband of 34 years, Dr. Robert Mallory.
“I would sometimes go on weekends and make a batch of chocolate fudge and bring it in to him. It kind of set him back. I would say, ‘I brought you a present,’ and in his grouchy voice he would say, ‘What do you mean, a present?’ He didn’t know what to think.”
Novak knew he treated everybody the same way. Still, she recalls, “I was so vulnerable. He sure got to me.”
Hayworth, with whom she appeared in 1957’s “Pal Joey,” was also sensitive. “I found out later she had her own way of struggling with him — she used alcohol and other things to put up with it. I was 19 when I came to Columbia and had to deal with him.”
Novak walked away from films for good in 1991 after the failure of her last movie, “Liebestraum.” Now, the art she practices is oil painting.
But on Friday, she’s venturing down to Hollywood to make an appearance at the American Cinematheque’s Egyptian Theatre for the first evening of the “Platinum Career: A Tribute to Kim Novak,” which continues through Sunday. The festivities open with a restored print of the 1958 comedy " Bell Book and Candle,” in which she plays a modern-day New York witch who casts a love spell on a mortal ( James Stewart), and the musical “Pal Joey,” in which she plays a showgirl in love with a cad ( Frank Sinatra). Between films, Novak will discuss her career with Los Angeles magazine editor Mary Melton and author-screenwriter Stephen Rebello.
Screening Saturday is the sizzling 1955 drama “Picnic,” with William Holden, and the underrated 1959 Paddy Chayefsky drama “Middle of the Night,” in which Novak plays a secretary in love with her older boss ( Fredric March).
The tribute concludes Sunday with her best-loved film, Alfred Hitchcock’s 1958 masterpiece, “Vertigo,” in which Novak plays the object of former detective Stewart’s affection and obsession.
And then on Tuesday, Sony Pictures Home Entertainment is releasing “The Kim Novak Collection” on DVD, which includes the DVD debuts of 1957’s “Jeanne Eagels” and “Middle of the Night,” as well as “Picnic,” “Bell Book and Candle” and “Pal Joey.”
Novak admits it was bittersweet to do the interviews and commentary for the disc set. “I love the life I live so much now,” she says. “It’s so rich, so full, I wouldn’t change it for anything. But it was just hard in a way.”
Because she never liked being told what to do growing up, being under contract was difficult for Novak. “It was hard to sort of hold on to yourself when people were trying to tell you to be different,” she says. “It was hard to maintain who you were. You had to compromise, because you had to know how much you could give up and how much you had to say, ‘No, I won’t give this up.’ ”
She was notorious for disagreeing with the makeup artists and hairstylists. “You had to go back in the ladies room and smudge off the extra makeup,” says Novak. “Otherwise, you would be completely buried, you would be totally lost as someone else. You would be smothered. It was literally like you couldn’t breathe.”
Novak describes her acting as “not stylized.”
“They were honest portrayals,” she adds. “I was honest to the characters I played, even with ‘Pal Joey’ — I didn’t care for playing that character because she was boring.”
There was nothing boring about “Jeanne Eagels,” in which she played the legendary 1920s stage star of “Rain,” who battled booze and drugs only to become the first posthumous Oscar acting nominee for 1929’s “The Letter.” Novak appeared opposite Jeff Chandler in the film.
“Oh my God, I loved that man,” Novak says of Chandler, who died in 1961 at age 42 of complications from surgery for a spinal disc herniation. “He was such a kind, tender, incredible soul. He was like the brother I wished I had.”
Novak is often asked about the highly erotic dance sequence between her and Holden in “Picnic,” which is set to the famous “Moonglow.” The film, based on William Inge’s hit play, was shot on location in Kansas. Novak plays the prettiest girl in town, who was just named Queen of Neewollah ( Halloween spelled backward) at the local Labor Day picnic. Holden plays a handsome drifter in town to visit an old friend.
The night they shot that dance sequence there was a tornado in the next town. “Director Josh Logan said, ‘Keep shooting, keep the cameras rolling.’ He was a nervous wreck.”
But she says the tornado, Logan’s emotional outbursts, the river next to the dance stand and “the energy of this sex god,” as Novak describes Holden, made the dance special.
“The energy of all of these elements were flowing at the same time,” Novak says. “It was more than just two people dancing.”
For information on the Cinematheque events, go to https://www.americancinematheque.com.