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Kim Novak: No Fear of Falling

By Tom Shales
Washington Post Staff Writer
October 14, 1996

"We have, of course, met before," Kim Novak says. Imagine her trying a cheap pickup line like that! But no, she says, she's certain, as if the poor old reporter could have met Kim Novak and forgotten about it. Kim Novak is not forgettable.

In the '50s and early '60s, Novak was a Hollywood sex symbol of the highest rank but she was always considered a smart, independent and moderately rebellious actress, too. She was known for such bohemian habits as eschewing shoes and arguing with directors. Today she lives on a ranch in Northern California with Robert Malloy, her veterinarian husband, and "20 to 30" llamas and appears to miss superstardom nary a bit.

Can she go two or three weeks without ever feeling like Kim Novak, Hollywood star? "Oh God, longer than that," she says. "I live way out in the country, so there's not a lot of people around to remind me. And my friends don't think of me as `Kim Novak' anymore anyway. It's like they forgot, too. And so it's nice.

"I had a lot of resentment for a while toward Kim Novak. But I don't mind her anymore. She's okay. We've become friends. I even asked her before this trip for some beauty tips."

Marilyn Pauline Novak has agreed to be Kim again to help Universal Pictures launch the re-release of Alfred Hitchcock's "Vertigo," perhaps the master's strangest and sexiest thriller, now looking better than ever thanks to a $1 million restoration. Novak stars memorably opposite James Stewart, playing not just one love interest but two -- a haunted and seemingly suicidal rich woman named Madeleine and a very morose working gal named Judy.

Fascinating and brilliant, "Vertigo" is unlike any other film, and it is one of Novak's best.

In black leather pants, a jacket and a scarf she keeps pulling up as if to conceal her neck, Kim Novak looks anything but the 63 she reportedly is. She's still indisputably beautiful but in a different way than she used to be. In other words, yes, she appears to have had some work done, but no, she doesn't seem to be a $1 million restoration job herself.

"`Vertigo' is definitely among my favorite movies for lots and lots of reasons," she says, "as well as my feeling the most comfortable I've ever felt making a movie. Hitchcock, contrary to what I'd heard about him, allowed me very much to have my own interpretation and everything."

No, she says, he was not the lecherous ogre some have claimed. "Maybe I just wasn't his type. He was a really fine gentleman. You always knew there was a lot going on in that head of his, behind that smile or smirk or whatever you call it. It was a perpetual sort of look that you didn't know how to take. He could be furious and he'd have that same smile."

Novak was asked to make public appearances on behalf of "Vertigo" when Universal first acquired it from the Hitchcock estate in 1984 (it was originally a Paramount film). She refused. But this time is different, largely because the film has been so painstakingly restored. For the first time ever, audiences will hear the hypnotic Bernard Herrmann score in stereo, and the film is being projected in its true VistaVision aspect ratio, wider than before.

The restoration was supervised by James C. Katz and Robert A. Harris, two madcap but tirelessly devoted producers who also helped with the refurbishings of "Lawrence of Arabia" and "My Fair Lady."

Novak hasn't seen the film in such good shape in years. "I didn't go in the '80s. I did see it on video once, but it's not the same. It's really amazing what they've done with it."

She is asked about a venerable rumor that Hitchcock also shot a happy ending to "Vertigo" but stuck with the unhappy one, which will certainly not be given away here. "There were two endings," she confirms, but neither of them was what you'd call happy. "I really wasn't involved in the other ending, I don't believe. I guess it had something to do with whether justice was served or not." Stewart's acrophobic character "was definitely punished" in the additional scenes, she says.

"The thing I loved about Alfred Hitchcock is that he left a lot of open ends there, a lot of clues that didn't really add up the way you think they would, and sometimes, not at all."

A Star Is Born
Novak stood out among the stars of her era, and not just in the obvious bosomy sense. She was among the last discoveries of the old studio system, having been spotted by a talent scout when she came to Los Angeles after being dubbed, of all things, Miss Deep Freeze in a beauty pageant, and soon found herself in the employ of legendary and infamous Columbia Pictures chief Harry Cohn.

"Who could forget him?" she says. "What he really had was a good instinct for finding the right movies. When he died, nobody really knew what to do." And was he the bombastic vulgarian he's supposed to have been? "Yes. Just like that. He used everything he had -- even the way his office was set up with this throne in it, and everyone else sat way lower than he did so you had this man looking down at you.

"The first time I was in his office was when they called me in to tell me they had changed my name. I had a feeling that if I'd gone along with the name they'd chosen, I'd never be seen again. I'd be swallowed up by that name, because it was a false name: Kit Marlowe.

"I said, `I'm not going to change my family name.' Harry Cohn said, `Well, nobody's going to go see a girl with a Polack name.' I said, `Well, I'm Czech, but Polish, Czech, no matter, it's my name." She won the battle with the "compromise" of Kim instead of Kit, which had sounded to her like "kitten," as in, "sex kitten." There were many battles to come, some of which she won, some of which she lost.

"The thing that was the hardest for me? I didn't like to fly and so I'd always go by train, and I love trains, but of course at every stop there was press, and I had to get out and it was always, `Lift your skirt' and all that. It was just -- oh! Maybe that's why I always wear pants nowadays.

"Besides, I never really liked my knees."

Hardly the bubbly, brainless type on screen, Novak brought a touch of melancholy as well as intelligence to many of her roles. In "Vertigo," as Judy, she is a woman who balks at being made into a sex object -- a fetishist's erotic totem, actually. In "Picnic," she plays Madge, a beautiful woman who wants to be loved for much more than her beauty.

Reporter: "I don't know what point I'm trying to make here."

Novak: "I don't either."

Reporter: "But do you think that's true?"

Novak: "What?"

Reporter: "That you were playing reluctant sex symbols as well as being one?"

"Oh. Yes," she says. "I think it was Josh Logan [the director of `Picnic'] who said, `She played it like she was wearing a thorn of crowns.' I mean, `crown of thorns.' And I thought, yeah, that's not a bad description for Madge. Her looks were definitely a handicap, and it was that way for me in a lot of ways, too.

"Personally, though, I never felt all that stuff applied to me. If you're wanting glamorous or really beautiful or really sexy, well then, I wasn't really the one, but I could do all of that. You could just get really lost in that kind of image."

Being star and sex symbol in the '50s meant not only having to raise your skirt at train stations but also going along with other publicity chores, like being seen around town with actors at premieres on dates arranged by the studio. Sometimes, however, the publicity boys asked too much.

"I'll never forget MGM," Novak says, her eyes widening. "God! My first day at MGM they decided to bring this lion out, male, and it was not the best time for him to see me. All of a sudden he thought I was in heat and this lion went into the dressing room, which was just a trailer on the sound stage, and went crazy.

"And all the flowers and fruit were flying all over, the trailer was shaking, and thank God the producer was there because I pulled him in front of me and climbed up into the corner. And the trainer had to break his tail to get him out." The lion's, that is. "Yes, really. The leash broke so all he could use as a lever was the tail."

Novak is asked what picture she was at MGM to make. " `Lylah Clare?' " she wonders aloud, referring to "The Legend of Lylah Clare," a bizarre flop by director Robert Aldrich that borrows heavily from "Vertigo" and the dual role Novak played in it. "It was my first time at MGM so they thought, `We'll have the lion greet her.' " She pauses. "MGM, lion, right? Or tiger?" No, lion.

She doesn't remember all the details. But she does remember that "Lylah Clare" was stinko.

"That was a weird movie. It didn't have to be that bad." Aldrich threw her for a loop when he had another actress dub lines in a deep German voice for some of Novak's scenes; her character was supposedly possessed by the spirit of a dead star. "He didn't tell me. I thought I'd die when I saw the movie. God, it was so humiliating."

"Pal Joey" is another of her least favorite films. "I never really liked it that much. The role seemed so superfluous and silly." She loved co-star Rita Hayworth, but not co-star Frank Sinatra, although he and Novak reputedly had an affair years earlier.

"I knew Rita Hayworth only enough to know that she was just a tender, sensitive, beautiful human being. A lovely person. Very gentle. She would never stand up for her rights."

As for Sinatra, "I loved him when we made `Man With the Golden Arm.' But when we made `Pal Joey,' he was another person by then. He was feeling he was the hotshot and everything, and I felt he was not very fair to Rita Hayworth particularly. He wouldn't show up for dance rehearsals and let her have to go through it all, then he came in the last day and all our work had to be cut because he didn't want to do this or he didn't want to do that. That was so unfair and so unkind, so uncalled for."

There were good movies, bad movies and one scandalous movie, Billy Wilder's 1964 sex farce "Kiss Me, Stupid," which was condemned by the Catholic Church's Legion of Decency. Novak didn't personally feel the Legion's wrath but the picture came back to haunt her a couple of years later. She was traveling with her parents in Europe and requested an audience with the pope. And was turned down.

"My mom and dad, that bothered them a lot, that I kept them from meeting the pope. It was one more thing to lay on me: `If it hadn't been for you, we could have met the pope and got his blessing!' " Several more years later, Novak did get to meet Pope John Paul II. "I wish my parents had been there to see it."

Did he say, "I forgive you for `Kiss Me, Stupid'?"

"No, no, though maybe that's why he let me come this time. But," she says with a still-bewitching smile, "he did forgive me all my sins."

Critic's Choice
Novak was dismissed by some critics in her time as just another movie star from the Hollywood machine, though the great Pauline Kael found her to be a redeeming virtue of even so bad a movie as "Stupid": "Kim Novak is touching in the dreamy-floozy Marilyn Monroe-like role," Kael wrote. "Her lostness holds the film together."

Her "lostness." Exactly the word for the special quality Novak had on the screen.

"I don't feel that I was a Hollywood-created star," Novak says. "Harry Cohn did not make me. But I also feel that I probably didn't make me, either. I think it was a combination. I think that's what made it work. But I've always had a hard time when they say `this manufactured star.' God, if they knew how much I tried not to be!"

She still takes the occasional film or TV role, but it's entirely at her discretion, which she likes. Mostly she stays home, occasionally taking to the computer to add a chapter to her autobiography -- a book that has been years in the making and, she says, will be years more. But she's determined to finish it.

"I think it will be helpful to people because I know the expectations that are put on you as a sex symbol, and how Marilyn Monroe suffered and so on, and I was able to get free of that. There'll be stories in there of Hollywood and it'll be exciting because my life was exciting. It'll be colorful because it was colorful. And I went through a lot of detours and I took a lot of roads and things so yes, that's all there, but it's not meant to be shocking or telltale.

"For every answer, I like to bring up a question. Maybe I'm related to Alfred Hitchcock or maybe I got to know him too well, but I think life should be that way. I don't think you want to give all the answers, but I think every answer you do give should bring up another question, and not all questions should be answered."

And yet she seems to have answered all of the reporter's. "Are you sure?" she says with a coy laugh. The interview is over and the requisite pleasantries exchanged.

"Nice to meet you," she says in parting, then adds, to get in the last word, "even though I saw you before."

© Copyright 1996 The Washington Post Company

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