Interview: Venus surprising

Kim Novak talks to John Lyttle
Click to follow
The Independent Online
Kim Novak is clad from head to toe in exquisitely cut black-and- pale skin. "You like the pant suit? I wore it to the premiere of Vertigo yesterday. Did you enjoy Vertigo? You did? The restoration is magnificent. I think Vertigo is one of Hitchcock's best..." The voice tunes in and out. You're obliged to come close, break into what psychologists call Intimate Space to catch the soft breeze of drifting sentences.

Off-screen Kim Novak talks in the same whisper that drives the happily married Kirk Douglas to adultery in Strangers When We Meet, and talks as much with her hands as her wet, discreetly pink lips. Delicate, fluttering gestures punctuate points about, oh, why she abandoned Hollywood nearly 30 years ago and "went back to nature"; why she believes in embracing good and bad both, for that's destiny; why her "comfortable, lower-middle- class Chicago upbringing" gave her a security Marilyn never had.

"Marilyn..." Novak says. In the Fifties, industry wisdom ran: Marilyn parodies sex, Mansfield parodies Marilyn, and Novak is sex. "Sex. Sex symbols." Novak shrugs. She repeats the words, maintains your gaze: "Not all of us made it, you know."

Novak did, however, though her fragile, lost and infinitely suffering image may have made her appear an ideal candidate for her own chapter in Hollywood Babylon. She's alarmingly tiny: a smoky blonde pocket Venus, a last gasp Sex Doll bred for the boudoir. But then, most of the Golden Age's Love Goddesses were tellingly diminutive, with constricted waists, short necks and barrage-balloon breasts. Even so, they usually towered over the studio chiefs and suffocating pretend-fathers who thought they were charged with running the lives of their ungrateful chattel, no matter how powerful at the box-office. Elizabeth Taylor, five feet and maybe one inch, could look down on MGM's Louis B Mayer, and Monroe, hardly an amazon but Queen of the Fox lot, was well used to greeting the top of Darryl Zanuck's swollen head. But Kim Novak's ogre was the biggest and the smallest - bastard of the bunch: Columbia's Harry "King" Cohn.

Cohn had made, and was later discarded by, Rita Hayworth, and wasn't about to have Hayworth's successor do the same. Every day, he'd gloat aloud how he had taken small-town beauty pageant winner Marilyn Pauline Novak and, through sheer force of will created the cool, creamy Kim, loudly boasting to the good old boys in the press corps that he could select any mug's sister, mother or aunt and perform the same miracle.

"Harry?" Novak sighs. "Harry thought he'd raised me up so he could pull me down, pull me down, pull me down. I'd say, `Harry, you didn't make me a star. Columbia didn't make me star. The audience noticed me in Picnic and The Man with the Golden Arm and they made me a star.' But he'd still call me into his office and read out my bad reviews. He'd repeat the really hurtful lines. He knew I'd remember them. Harry got a kick out of humiliating me."

No wonder she says she's more comfortable with "the real animal world" out there on Big Sur, surrounded, and (one senses) protected, by her adored dogs, cats, deer, horses, trout... She names each as if it's part of a chant and isn't above getting mystical about trees: "Oh, trees move me to tears. They did my father too. A tree is so perfect in its... acceptance. In fact, when I was a girl, I was teased because kids were picking flowers on the way to school and I'd cry. They'd tell me I was crazy." Harry and Hollywood, of course, told her much the same thing for daring to speak her mind: "Harry said I was being renamed Kit Marlowe and I said no. He exploded. I was stupid, I was dumb...

"I was made to feel I was continually saying the wrong thing. It was: little girls should be seen and not heard. I wanted to be heard."

One way she made herself heard was by dating Sammy Davis Jnr, shocking in an era when white women seen with black men could be, and were, beaten. Not that the romance was meant to be a defiant statement about either her independent will or braving the colour bar. For a while, her career stood on the brink. "It just didn't make sense to me. What, I shouldn't see Sammy because he's black and because they won't show my movies in the South? I said to Harry, OK, then they don't show my movies in the South.

"I was going to continue to see Sammy, come hell or high water. I knew lots of blacks and Jews. I identified with minorities. Those feelings shouldn't be lip service, but put into action."

"Harry got his Mob friends involved. They threatened Sammy." Davis married a black dancer three weeks later. "Harry had a heart attack. When I was called to his office after that he would make a show of popping his nitrates. Unbelievable.

"But I feel bad. In his own way, Harry wanted to protect me - I was an investment. I've always felt partially responsible for his dying." She hesitates. "Did you know there was even a reference to me in Harry's will? His curse was, `Now I'm never going to make another movie for you, Novak'... After he was gone no one knew how to choose, they were all used to him making the decisions. I didn't get many exciting parts after his death. He was a bully, but Harry's humiliations made me stronger, not weaker. He taught me to resist."

Yet, she, not Cohn has the reputation for temperament. It's followed her off the A-list and down the years, so she could seem a rinky-dink cliche. A nutty Norma Desmond figure with an entire zoo-full of monkeys to bury by candlelight, another great beauty abused by the business and turned a little wacko because of it. Gossip, stale gossip, ancient gossip: she was hitched to Shakespearean Great White Hope Richard Johnson and left him to marry a vet and rear llamas. And no children, just pets and more pets. What does that tell you, hmm?

"That's not it," Novak protests. "I never thought of it as a retirement or even a leaving. I was stagnant, playing the same stereotypes. I started to surrender. I thought, `It's tough fighting them all the time. Perhaps I should go along with it.' And I hated to feel that. I needed a continuation of real life. I had to get clear of Kim Novak."

Yet the public must co-exist with the private. Long fingers fuss through artful gold corkscrew clusters around the smooth, perfect oval of the face, framing clear, kohl-smudged eyes. Pushing 65, Novak's lustre has become ceremonial; she's aware of what becomes a legend most. Casing the room, instructing her PR handmaiden on the approved type of individual, half-inch false eyelashes required - "black, very, very black" - she studies the available light and instinctively tilts high cheekbones to surf the rays. She's mesmerising, a languid study in slow-motion. Sudden movement is tossed to others. The photographer is ordered to stand, sway, bend, bounce and shoot from above to eliminate any fine lines. He takes mild umbrage, and Novak both teases and charmingly pulls rank: "I've worked with Billy Wilder. I know what I'm doing."

And she does know what she's doing. A switch is flipped. Within seconds she's at full wattage and the photographer is buzzing about, obedient to her command. The seduction would be pure camp if it weren't also utterly professional. Photos taken, Kim Novak switches off as she instantly switched on. Magic Time's over, folks.

Not entirely. She's here in London, sitting pretty at the Dorchester (of course) to promote Hitchcock's Vertigo. With the received wisdom of hindsight, the million-dollar Technicolor touch-up is being sold as scarcely sublimated directorial autobiography, Jimmy Stewart's obsessive-compulsive transformation of Novak's Judy into the vision of his dead love Madeleine being exactly the treatment (punishment?) Hitchcock inflicted on his hapless contract signings Tippi Hedren and Vera Miles. Yet the film succeeds in its simultaneously clinical and sumptuously romantic dissection of lovesickness because Vertigo is as much Novak's life story as Hitchcock's.

Each ritual sacrifice Stewart forces Judy through - the dye job, the weight loss, the cosmetic refinements - Harry Cohn had already visited upon "the fat Polack". Hitchcock was congratulated for prising a performance out of the scandal sheets' favourite party girl - and every woman who dated Aly Khan was then considered a party girl - but, as Novak points out, the director mostly left her be. Literally. She didn't need assistance playing herself.

"Harry didn't get it," Novak notes. "He didn't want me to do Vertigo. He said, `It's a lousy script.' So I read it expecting a lousy script and I thought, God, this is why I'm here. It wouldn't have been right for anyone else in that period that I can think of. It was predestined. This was who I was. It was what was going on."

Vertigo certainly encapsulates something Novak's other roles exploited. Not just what critics of the period dismissed as her "bovine acceptance" of fate's injuries, although that is strip-mined, but the idea that she's seldom quite what she's first presented as. In Bell, Book and Candle, she's a witch pretending to be human; in Boys' Night Out, she's a sociology student posing as a prostitute; in The Notorious Landlady, she's an innocent branded a murderess. There's always someone else behind the glittering facade. Hitchcock, she says, understood facades. "Making Vertigo, I thought Hitchcock knew exactly, and could feel, the oppression of being a woman. Here was someone who was deathly frightened of being seen for what he really was... Have you noticed in his movie cameos he seldom presents himself straight on? It's a glimpse, a profile...

"That's why he was so fascinated by women. Our masks. There's an envy too. I think that what many people view as his misogyny is jealousy, that Alfred Hitchcock on some level may have wanted to have been a beautiful blonde. Am I making sense?"

Certainly. It might also explain why Hitchcock allowed himself to be talked into taking Novak on after Vera Miles fell pregnant. "I was too awkward, too self-conscious for Hitchcock. And too inflexible in a lot of ways. But, at the same time, he recognised there was a reason why I was in this: `There's a reason why I've picked you, though you're not someone I would have first chosen'."

Perhaps what Hitchcock recognised was the iron will reviewers seldom acknowledged but Harry Cohn sought to crush. Yet what's startling today isn't the flashes of metal under the sequins but Novak's apparent lack of anger. That wouldn't be allowed room on screen until she played Mildred the cockney waitress in the remake of Of Human Bondage, and it hastened her career decline. Weren't there ever days when she woke up choking on her own rage? Or is her stoicism also something inherited from her father, a man who renounced his dream of living in the woods so his wife could stay in the city, and never quite recovered? Novak waves the question away: "Be angry? There's no point. I don't scream and shout and wave banners."

What she did instead was escape. "You know what I used to do when I came to London before? I'd bring a bag full of different looks and adopt a disguise and head for Speakers' Corner.

"I'd get on a soapbox and speak passionately about being a woman, about the planet and nature and all those things. And I was thrilled because the crowds didn't know who I was and they still listened. They took me seriously." Novak brushes a speck of imaginary lint off her flattering black pant suit. "But when I was Kim Novak, no one listened. They just wanted to take my picture. I could only be heard when I wasn't her."

`Vertigo' goes on release this Friday