Tomorrow’s Stars Yesterday: Kim Novak, 1955

by Philip Berk November 17, 2020
Kim Novak

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Between 1948 and 1983 Golden Globes were awarded in a special category of “New Star of the Year” conceived to recognize young actors making a mark in their early roles. In this series, the HFPA’s Phil Berk highlights those that would follow their auspicious starts with distinguished careers.

Once again in a generous mood, in 1955 the Hollywood Foreign Press awarded no less than five Golden Globes to their New Star of the Year nominees. Of the five only Shirley MacLaine and Kim Novak would achieve superstar status.

MacLaine’s career is documented in our Cecil B. deMille series (1998) so it’s only fitting we devote a special salute to Kim, whose dual role as Madeleine Elster and Judy Barton in Hitchcock’s Vertigo assures her a place in the pantheon of Hollywood’s greatest performances. The film itself was recently voted the greatest film of all time in Sight and Sound’s definitive poll of the world’s foremost filmmakers and critics.

Kim’s entry into show business was quite accidental. With no aspirations to be an actress, while touring the country as a model for a refrigerator company, she was crowned “Miss Deepfreeze” at a Los Angeles trade fair, which led to a job as an extra at RKO, where she was discovered by an agent, who secured her a long-term contract at Columbia.

From the get-go, she fought with studio boss Harry Cohn who believed her name was too ethnic, but she held her ground and he acquiesced. Columbia immediately groomed her to be the studio’s successor to Rita Hayworth whose career was on the decline and Cohn hoped she’d become their Marilyn Monroe.

She didn’t disappoint him.

After playing opposite Fred MacMurray in Pushover and in support of Judy Holliday and Jack Lemmon in Phfft, she was chosen by Joshua Logan to play the female lead in his film translation of the Pulitzer Prize-winning play Picnic, opposite reigning superstar William Holden. The film was an immediate critical and box-office triumph, which earned her that Golden Globe Award as Most Promising Newcomer.

But she was hardly a newcomer, and in fact, she was already a star.

Soon Otto Preminger chose her to play opposite Frank Sinatra in The Man with the Golden Arm, and despite her inexperience and lack of self-confidence, he guided her sympathetically through dozens of takes, which enabled her to give a performance that was highly praised.

Now, queen of the lot, Columbia cast her opposite Tyrone Power in The Eddy Duchin Story, Jeff Chandler in the biopic of actress Jeanne Eagels, and again with Sinatra in Pal Joey, all box office hits, which led Hitchcock to cast her in Vertigo after his first choice for the role, Vera Miles, became pregnant.

At the time of its release, Vertigo received mixed reviews, and Novak herself expressed disappointment with her performance, but she (and critics) has come around to recognize it as her best work. Even though she and Hitchcock didn’t get along during the shoot, years later she alone protested when the Oscar-winning film The Artist purloined a section of Bernard Hermann’s classic Vertigo score. But to no avail. But that was not the only time she went to battle for something she believed in.

As a contract player at Columbia where she was only getting $1,250 a week when she learned that Paramount was paying the studio $250,000 for her services and guaranteeing James Stewart as her costar for her next Columbia film Bell, Book and Candle, she went on suspension, ultimately forcing Cohn to increase her salary to $3,000 a week.

She continued to command prestige roles, opposite Fredric March in Middle of the Night, Kirk Douglas in Strangers When We Meet, and Jack Lemmon in The Notorious Landlady, the latter two directed by Richard Quine with whom she was romantically involved. Her other liaisons with actors Richard Johnson (they were married a year), Michael Brandon, and Sammy Davis, Jr. were ephemeral, but her marriage to equine veterinarian Richard Malloy has lasted for 40 years.

Once her contract with Columbia ended, she continued to work at other studios, but she never reclaimed her former glory as Columbia’s number one star. Most of those films over a ten-year period were disappointments and even her star turn in Billy Wilder’s Kiss Me Stupid went unnoticed when the film bombed. 

She went into semi-retirement in 1970 and her occasional performances in middling television films did nothing to reignite what was once a spectacular career. After a bad experience making her last film, Mike Figgis’ Liebestraum, she retired from public life emerging only occasionally to accept a lifetime achievement award.

Her classic performance? Vertigo. Who could ask for anything more?