There’s a line spoken by Kim Novak in the Alfred Hitchcock masterpiece Vertigo that every devotee of the film knows by heart: “If I let you change me, will that do it? If I do what you tell me, will you love me?”
In reality, the plea was all too personal for Novak, the platinum blonde who during a string of hit films in the 1950s and ’60s endured Hollywood’s constant makeovers: to her hair, her clothes, her figure. She became, to critics and audiences, a sex symbol — and little more.
But Novak, who appears this weekend in a pre-concert Q&A at the San Francisco Symphony’s live-screening performance of Bernard Herrmann’s Vertigo score, would prevail over tyranny and adversity to create a phenomenal body of film work that deserves a serious reassessment.
As for being a sex symbol? It’s a reputation, she says, that she always fought against.
‘I didn’t look at all like myself’
“When I first went to the studio,” Novak tells me over the phone from her ranch in rural Oregon, “they’d put me in the makeup chair and they’d say, ‘Well, now, let’s see, I think we’ll give you a Joan Crawford mouth, and we’ll give you Lana Turner hair.’ By the time I got out of the makeup chair, I didn’t look at all like myself.”
Novak, then 20, rebelled — as much as one could and still be in pictures, anyway. She famously refused Columbia studio boss Harry Cohn’s demand that she change her name to “Kit Marlowe” (born in Chicago as Marilyn Pauline Novak, the “Kim” was a compromise), and before her first screen test she ran into the ladies’ room to wipe away the layers of makeup his team had applied. “I had to try to find remnants of myself underneath all this makeup,” she says. “I remember doing this all through my early career, trying to undo what they were trying to put on me.”
In hindsight, Cohn’s drastic makeovers were perfect practice for Novak’s role in Vertigo as Judy, a woman subjected to Jimmy Stewart’s obsession and his strict demands for her physical transformation. “That’s of course what Vertigo was,” she says. “I mean, Judy was always saying ‘Love me, love who I am.’ But she was always reaching out, as I was, always reaching out to be seen as more than that sex symbol.”
That career-defining role, perhaps, was also perfect practice for being a female star in a male-dominated world.
“For women in general,” she sighs, “men are always trying to make them over into what they want.”
‘Not appreciated in my time’
Novak faced so many setbacks that it’s a minor miracle she survived Hollywood at all. She revealed in recent years that she was raped as a child, and suffered from bipolar disorder until diagnosis and treatment 15 years ago. Cohn, who called her “the dumb, fat Polack” and loudly read her own bad reviews to her face, squashed her romance with Sammy Davis, Jr. by threatening them both — him with removal of his remaining eye, her with never working in town again.
Novak nevertheless held onto enough of a sense of self to appear in remarkably strong character studies: Picnic, Middle of the Night, and Bell, Book & Candle among them. It’s virtually impossible to watch Novak in these films and believe sex is the only thing she brought to the screen.
As Maggie in Strangers When We Meet, Novak plays an ignored housewife who longs for attention and finds it in a suburban affair; as Molly in The Man With the Golden Arm, she plays a strip-club hostess trying to help a heroin addict get clean. Even as the prostitute Polly the Pistol in Kiss Me, Stupid, Novak imparts an undercurrent of longing for human connection that’s ultimately more a product of income inequity than lust. Sex is a part of all of these roles, but Novak’s understanding and empathy to the characters’ motivations runs deeper than sex, and preempts what some might now call slut-shaming. Film critics barely took note.
Critics were wrong, too, about Vertigo, which recently displaced Citizen Kane as the greatest film of all time in BFI’s Sight & Sound poll. Alfred Hitchcock’s 1958 masterpiece barely broke even at the box office; the Los Angeles Times, Variety, Time and Newsweek all panned the film. The New Yorker dismissed the story as “far-fetched nonsense,” and Sight & Sound itself opined that the plot “fails to work,” bemoaning Hitchcock was “repeating himself in slow motion.”
“It was before its time, really,” Novak tells me of the film’s release. “I was not appreciated in my time. I think I’m appreciated more now. I’m glad to know that I’m still around to know that I’m more appreciated now.”
Not that she’s anywhere near Hollywood to see it. In the 1970s, Novak met a veterinarian and married him, eventually bought a 43-acre ranch outside of Medford, Oregon and now spends her days along the Rogue River, painting constantly (a Vertigo-themed canvas of hers will be on display at the symphony). Like other Hitchcock starlets Tippi Hedren and Doris Day, she appears to prefer the company of her animals to the company of people.
‘I felt raped’
Still, Novak stays current on new movies (“Hollywood then was a land of make-believe; I think it’s much more a land of real people now,” she tells me), and in 2011, when The Artist lifted the love theme from Herrmann’s score for Vertigo, Novak took out a full-page ad in Variety lambasting the usage. Her headline: “I Want to Report a Rape.”
“I was deeply hurt by it,” Novak says, acknowledging that some felt her wording too harsh. “They were upset when I used the saying that I felt raped, but I did. I had been raped, and it did hurt me on that level because that was from our love scene. It really hurt me a great deal.”
Novak’s alienation by modern-day Hollywood and its pressures came to its sharpest point at the 2014 Academy Awards, where she appeared as a presenter having clearly had work done to her face. She woke up the next morning to vicious attacks on her appearance, and didn’t leave the house for days afterward.
“I don’t like bullying, and that’s what it was, bullying,” she says. “It hurt me. I’m a very sensitive person, so it did bother me.”
Some rushed to her defense. Others, like Donald Trump, tweeted that she should fire her plastic surgeon. Novak eventually posted an open letter stating that yes, she had fat injections before the broadcast, adding, “In my opinion, a person has a right to look as good as they can, and I feel better when I look better.”
Trump eventually apologized. But the incident was a stinging reminder to Novak of why she hasn’t made a film for 25 years.
‘Don’t let people try to change you’
Looking back now at 82, Novak says she has no big regrets. But if she could go back in time to tell her younger self anything, she says, she would encourage even more fight in the younger Kim Novak.
“I would just say hold out for what you believe in, and don’t be afraid to express yourself,” she says. “Don’t let people try to change you, because in the long run, if you keep trying to do what everyone else thinks is right, it’s not. You’ve got to do what you believe. Shakespeare was so right: ‘This above all, to thine own self be true.’”
As for her upcoming trip to San Francisco? If you see a familiar figure walking through Mission Dolores, Fort Point or the Legion of Honor, you may be in the presence of film royalty. “I’m going to want to visit my old haunts,” Novak says, “and go around to all the places where we made the movie.”
And after years of seclusion, Novak has started saying yes to more public appearances. Part of it, she says, may be that finally the public’s assessment of her work has caught up to its quality. Inverting her famous line in Vertigo, audiences love her — without needing to change a thing.
“I’m just so glad that I did get to see things turn around,” she says, “and see people appreciate me more now in life. That feels good.”
Kim Novak appears in conversation before the San Francisco Symphony’s screening and score performance of Vertigo on Friday and Saturday, Feb. 12 and 13, at Davies Symphony Hall. Details here.