‘There were paparazzi hiding under my bed!’: Vertigo star Kim Novak

Kim Novak’s name burned in fireworks in the Riviera sky after she made Vertigo. Geoffrey Macnab meets the legend who walked away

Kim Novak seems disappointed. Last month, the star of Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo (1958), which was last year voted the greatest film of all time by Sight and Sound’s critics, was in Cannes for a special screening of the film.

“I expected it to be much wilder,” Novak says of the festival.  She reminisces about visiting the Riviera for the first time in the 1950s and getting up to high jinks with Cary Grant, Prince Aly Khan and other “outstanding personalities of the time”. Back then, there was “more glamour in the air. I remember coming home on my first night in Cannes and finding three photographers with their flashbulbs – the big flashbulbs with the big tops on the cameras – popping out from under the bed. They had those big beds then so people could actually fit under the bed. I don’t know what they expected me to come in with... a man, no doubt.”

There were no photographers under her bed this time round. There was a dinner after the Vertigo screening but no dancing. Nor was her name spelt out in fire-crackers in the night sky over the Mediterranean, as it was back then. “That was so much more exciting than when I first saw my name in lights on the screen.”

Novak was back in the headlines two years ago when she took a full-page ad in a trade paper to complain that the makers of the Oscar-winning silent film The Artist had used snippets from Bernard Herrmann’s score from Vertigo. “I loved the movie,” she says of The Artist, but can’t hide her anger. “It wasn’t fair. It was more than unfair.” A little outlandishly, she compared their actions to rape. “I had been raped as a child so I know the feeling. It cut me like a knife. It wasn’t needed,” she tells me. “They had a beautiful score they could have used. They didn’t need to use the beautiful feelings that [Vertigo co-star] Jimmy Stewart and I had worked for. Also, from a masterpiece, you don’t take something from that. It cost a lot of money to run that ad but I felt it needed to be said.”

Tippi Hedren has talked about Alfred Hitchcock’s predatory behaviour toward his actresses. Novak dismisses such stories. The Hitch she describes was shy and reticent, “a complete gentleman,” who treated her with all due decorum, even if he did make her dive into the freezing water several times for the scene in which James Stewart rescues her from San Francisco Bay. “I think it has been exaggerated that he made people do things over and over. I don’t think he was in any way vindictive or malicious. I never had that feeling.”

Hitchcock didn’t give her much direction. “He observed me through the lens. The most contact I had with him was through the lens, as I worked.”  A former Miss Deep Freeze, modelling with fridges in Chicago, Novak wasn’t a trained actress. That was one reason she had such a close rapport with co-Stewart.

“We seemed to be kindred spirits. We were both reactors rather than actors. We liked to play off one another. We never seemed to think about our lines. We were reacting off our feelings.”

At the time she made the film, Novak was annoyed she wasn’t allowed to do her own hair and make-up. “The make-up drove me crazy with those ghastly eyebrows,” she says of how she was made to look by Hitchcock.

Vertigo wasn’t much liked by audiences or critics on its initial release. “It was very disappointing,” Novak acknowledges of its reception. She was under contract to Columbia Pictures and had been loaned out to make the film by the studio boss Harry Cohn, who told her it was a lousy script but admired Hitchcock enough to let her do it.

Novak, then in her mid-20s, was already used to being attacked by critics. “I’ve always felt that being a pretty girl was a handicap,” she reflects. She wasn’t steeped in method acting and felt she was too artless and understated to please the reviewers.

Directors, though, always saw her qualities. Novak had already appeared opposite Frank Sinatra in Otto Preminger’s The Man with the Golden Arm (1955), a moody black and white drama about a heroin addict, and she went on to work with Billy Wilder on Kiss Me, Stupid (1964). Sinatra treated her with extreme kindness on The Man with the Golden Arm but was then (she recalls) an utter “cad” on Pal Joey (1957.)

“He was so kind and so gentle [on The Man with the Golden Arm]. I was very new in the business and he was so understanding. I remember I was sick for a couple of days and he sent me a box of the complete works of Thomas Wolfe,” she recalls. However, on Pal Joey, he was playing a womanising ne’er-do-well and was clearly keen to get in character.

“It was understandable in retrospect. When he did The Man with the Golden Arm, he was trying to get back on the top of his game and really working hard. By the time he did Pal Joey, he was on top again.” Sinatra, she reveals, vetoed the dance numbers that she and co-star Rita Hayworth had spent hours choreographing.

These days, Novak spends her time on her ranch in Oregon painting, writing poetry and tending animals. She did once write an autobiography but the manuscript was lost in a fire. “I could no longer take the time to re-write it. It would take me forever to re-do it,” she says of the lost memoir.

Novak has appeared in many films regarded as classics today. Nonetheless, she turned her back on Hollywood relatively early in her career. She was a rebellious spirit who liked to dance barefoot and smoke grass – not behaviour the studio bosses approved of. She makes clear that being a Hollywood star in the studio era required a ferocious discipline. 

“It was such a tight ship they ran. The rewards were that you learned so much about how to be glamorous, how to dress, how to do make-up, how you presented yourself. In defence of Harry Cohn, when he passed away, nobody else knew how to choose the right movies to put you in. They were dictators but they also knew what they were doing.”

There came a point when she didn’t want to wear high heels at Hollywood parties any more. “I gave that up because I wanted to dance barefoot outside. I feel guilty that I gave up Hollywood and yet I don’t. I married the most wonderful man, I married my veterinarian. I have horses. I have the man I love and I have the life I love... I do feel little bit guilty too,” she repeats of what she left behind. “But you can’t have both!”

Arts and Entertainment
Jamie Dornan as Christian Grey in Fifty Shades of Grey

film Sex scene trailer sees a shirtless Jamie Dornan turn up the heat

Arts and Entertainment
Fake Banksy stencil given to artist Alex Jakob-Whitworth

art

Arts and Entertainment
'The Archers' has an audience of about five million
radioA growing number of listeners are voicing their discontent; so loudly that even the BBC's director-general seems worried
Arts and Entertainment
Ready to open the Baftas, rockers Kasabian are also ‘great film fans’
musicExclusive: Rockers promise an explosive opening to the evening
Arts and Entertainment
Henry VIII played by Damien Lewis
tvReview: Scheming queens-in-waiting, tangled lines of succession and men of lowly birth rising to power – sound familiar?
PROMOTED VIDEO
Arts and Entertainment
Taylor Swift is heading to Norwich for Radio 1's Big Weekend

music
Arts and Entertainment
Beer as folk: Vincent Franklin and Cyril Nri (centre) in ‘Cucumber’
tvReview: This slice of gay life in Manchester has universal appeal
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
‘A Day at the Races’ still stands up well today
film
Arts and Entertainment
‘The Royals’ – a ‘twisted, soapy take on England’s first family’
tvAnd its producers have already announced a second season...
Arts and Entertainment
Kraftwerk performing at the Neue Nationalgalerie (New National Gallery) museum in Berlin earlier this month
musicWhy a bunch of academics consider German electropoppers Kraftwerk worthy of their own symposium
Arts and Entertainment
Icelandic singer Bjork has been forced to release her album early after an online leak

music
Arts and Entertainment
Colin Firth as Harry Hart in Kingsman: The Secret Service

film
Arts and Entertainment
Brian Blessed as King Lear in the Guildford Shakespeare Company's performance of the play

theatre
Arts and Entertainment
In the picture: Anthony LaPaglia and Martin Freeman in 'The Eichmann Show'

tv
Arts and Entertainment
Anne Kirkbride and Bill Roache as Deirdre and Ken Barlow in Coronation Street

tvThe actress has died aged 60
Arts and Entertainment
Marianne Jean-Baptiste defends Joe Miller in Broadchurch series two

tv
Arts and Entertainment
The frill of it all: Hattie Morahan in 'The Changeling'

theatre
Arts and Entertainment
Gillian Anderson and David Duchovny may reunite for The X Files

tv
Arts and Entertainment
Jeremy Clarkson, left, and Richard Hammond upset the locals in South America
TV
News
A young woman punched a police officer after attending a gig by US rapper Snoop Dogg
people
Arts and Entertainment
Reese Witherspoon starring in 'Wild'

It's hard not to warm to Reese Witherspoon's heroismfilm
Arts and Entertainment
Word up: Robbie Coltrane as dictionary guru Doctor Johnson in the classic sitcom Blackadder the Third
books

Arts and Entertainment
The Oscar nominations are due to be announced today

Oscars 2015
Arts and Entertainment
Hacked off: Maisie Williams in ‘Cyberbully’

Maisie Williams single-handedly rises to the challenge

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Eddie Redmayne in The Theory of Everything and Benedict Cumberbatch in The Imitation Game are both nominated at the Bafta Film Awards
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Isis hostage crisis: The prisoner swap has only one purpose for the militants - recognition its Islamic State exists and that foreign nations acknowledge its power

    Isis hostage crisis

    The prisoner swap has only one purpose for the militants - recognition its Islamic State exists and that foreign nations acknowledge its power, says Robert Fisk
    Missing salvage expert who found $50m of sunken treasure before disappearing, tracked down at last

    The runaway buccaneers and the ship full of gold

    Salvage expert Tommy Thompson found sunken treasure worth millions. Then he vanished... until now
    Homeless Veterans appeal: ‘If you’re hard on the world you are hard on yourself’

    Homeless Veterans appeal: ‘If you’re hard on the world you are hard on yourself’

    Maverick artist Grayson Perry backs our campaign
    Assisted Dying Bill: I want to be able to decide about my own death - I want to have control of my life

    Assisted Dying Bill: 'I want control of my life'

    This week the Assisted Dying Bill is debated in the Lords. Virginia Ironside, who has already made plans for her own self-deliverance, argues that it's time we allowed people a humane, compassionate death
    Move over, kale - cabbage is the new rising star

    Cabbage is king again

    Sophie Morris banishes thoughts of soggy school dinners and turns over a new leaf
    11 best winter skin treats

    Give your moisturiser a helping hand: 11 best winter skin treats

    Get an extra boost of nourishment from one of these hard-working products
    Paul Scholes column: The more Jose Mourinho attempts to influence match officials, the more they are likely to ignore him

    Paul Scholes column

    The more Jose Mourinho attempts to influence match officials, the more they are likely to ignore him
    Frank Warren column: No cigar, but pots of money: here come the Cubans

    Frank Warren's Ringside

    No cigar, but pots of money: here come the Cubans
    Isis hostage crisis: Militant group stands strong as its numerous enemies fail to find a common plan to defeat it

    Isis stands strong as its numerous enemies fail to find a common plan to defeat it

    The jihadis are being squeezed militarily and economically, but there is no sign of an implosion, says Patrick Cockburn
    Virtual reality thrusts viewers into the frontline of global events - and puts film-goers at the heart of the action

    Virtual reality: Seeing is believing

    Virtual reality thrusts viewers into the frontline of global events - and puts film-goers at the heart of the action
    Homeless Veterans appeal: MP says Coalition ‘not doing enough’

    Homeless Veterans appeal

    MP says Coalition ‘not doing enough’ to help
    Larry David, Steve Coogan and other comedians share stories of depression in new documentary

    Comedians share stories of depression

    The director of the new documentary, Kevin Pollak, tells Jessica Barrett how he got them to talk
    Has The Archers lost the plot with it's spicy storylines?

    Has The Archers lost the plot?

    A growing number of listeners are voicing their discontent over the rural soap's spicy storylines; so loudly that even the BBC's director-general seems worried, says Simon Kelner
    English Heritage adds 14 post-war office buildings to its protected lists

    14 office buildings added to protected lists

    Christopher Beanland explores the underrated appeal of these palaces of pen-pushing
    Human skull discovery in Israel proves humans lived side-by-side with Neanderthals

    Human skull discovery in Israel proves humans lived side-by-side with Neanderthals

    Scientists unearthed the cranial fragments from Manot Cave in West Galilee