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‘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
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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!”