If you keep up with the Oscars, you probably saw and heard a great deal about Kim Novak and her presentation duties in this year's show. She was the butt of several jokes due to her extensive plastic surgery. Right or wrong, such alterations are a given thing for many in her line of work. When you've spent a significant part of your life engaged in a profession where your looks are vital, it can be difficult for some to let them go without a fight. Kim has had to do a lot of fighting in her life, against forces ranging from biased movie makers, dictatorial studio heads, her own inner demons and even mother nature herself. She's weathered it all, though not without taking a hit here and there.
Christened Marilyn Pauline Novak on Feb. 13, 1933 in Chicago, IL, Kim grew up the daughter of Czech parents on the south side of Chicago. Despite earning a scholarship to The Art Institute of Chicago, Kim opted for a local community college instead, punctuating that with various modelling gigs. She spent the summer of 1953 touring appliance trade shows across the country as "Miss Deepfreeze" for a refrigerator company. When the tour arrived in Los Angeles, she and a friend decided on a whim to stand in line for a walk on role in the 3D Jane Russell feature THE FRENCH LINE. Kim got the gig, in the process catching the eye of Columbia Pictures talent director Max Arnow. Charmed by her shapely figure and sensual demeanor, he introduced her to Columbia studio chief Harry Cohn, who signed Kim to a long-term contract. And just like that, a star was born.
Cohn immediately began to mold his new blonde bombshell in the fashion of Marilyn Monroe, whose career was taking a downward turn due to health issues and increased conflicts with her studio. The first order of business was to change her name, since by that point Marilyn was already synonymous with that other buxom blonde beauty. Kit Marlowe was the first suggestion, but Kim insisted on keeping her last name. Thus she was rechristened Kim Novak. Now that she had the right name, the studio followed the bombshell playbook and put her on a diet. Kim was also required to take acting lessons, which she had to pay for out of her own pocket.
With only a modest amount of training to supplement her own innate talents, Kim hit the ground running as an actress, immediately impressing critics and audiences alike with her debut role as a femme fatale in the noir film PUSHOVER, starring Fred MacMurray. Audiences became even more enamored with her following the 1954 sex comedy PHFFT!, where her Monroe-like appeal first came into play. She took a different turn in 1955 with the screen adaptation of William Inge's Pulitzer Prize-winning play, PICNIC. Kim plays a small town girl who runs afoul of an ex-football star played by William Holden in the film, earning a BAFTA nomination for her performance. She continued to earn acting cred with roles in THE MAN WITH THE GOLDEN ARM, playing the understanding neighbor to Frank Sinatra's drug addict character. And continued to work alongside some of the great leading men, like Tyrone Power in 1957's THE EDDY DUCHIN STORY. All indications pointed to a bright future for Kim, but it was the studio that had the final word on that matter.
Still seeing their young talent as more of a bombshell than a true actress, Cohn pushed heavy for her to take the coveted Monroe mantel. Thus her appearances in increasingly lightweight films, such as the THE JEANNE EAGLE'S STORY and the musical PAL JOEY, the latter providing Kim a change to "out-sex" Columbia's other screen siren, a then aging Rita Hayworth. Whatever the studio's degree of denial toward Kim's burgeoning talent, their casting decisions did make her one of the Top 10 of box office draws in the late 1950s. It was a feat underscored by her regular front page features in the gossip rags of the day. For apart from being a scorching screen presence, Kim was also something of a firecracker in real life. Tabloids had field days linking her to a plethora of leading men, including her co-star Frank Sinatra and Cary Grant. Her relationship with Ramfis Trujillo, son of an infamous Dominican Dictator, created scandal all the way up to the floor of the US Congress, after she was gifted a sports car from him despite sanctions against it.
Kim's most controversial relationship, at least by the standards of the day, was the one she had with the legendary showman and Rat Packer Sammy Davis, Jr. The tangle of controversy and mortal jeopardy their brief relationship elicited is a story in and of itself. Both being performers determined to be their own people in the face of industries determined to keep them reined in, Sammy and Kim began their romance following one of the singer's Las Vegas shows. They quickly became inseparable, Sammy especially so. He once flew across the country for just 5-minutes alone with the blonde beauty. Unfortunately for them, show business and society as a whole in 1950s America was rife with racism, forcing them to carry on in secret. Being under the employ of people with strong mob ties didn't help. Sammy's numerous Vegas casino shows put him in regular, close contact with several mob kingpins. And Kim's boss, Columbia head Harry Cohn, was a feared taskmaster with his own mob connections. Cohn also ran his studio with a kind of mob-like ruthlessness. Taking satisfaction from his powerful hold on many a subordinate actor, he was infamous for his cruel enforcement on wayward talent; talent like Kim, who never entirely bowed to his authority, even somehow managing to escape his once virtually inescapable casting couch.
Unfortunately for Kim and Sammy, news of their affair soon broke in the press, sparking a firestorm of rage from several people it was unwise to enrage in those days. Studio boss Cohn was apparently so incensed by their relationship that he suffered a minor heart attack upon hearing the news. Rumors began to swirl behind-the-scenes of a mob hit placed on Sammy and orchestrated by Cohn. Kim's perhaps wise choice was to disappear for awhile until things blew over, but Sammy was forced to go one step further and diffuse a bomb that was about explode. His only choice was to marry the first African-American woman he could find, striking a deal with a beautiful singer and actress, who agreed to an arranged marriage which included a cash settlement and an eventual dissolution of the marriage after a year's time. The tactic worked and Sammy quickly fell off the hitman's radar (though it was questionable how much danger he was in, considering the amount of money many mob-owned casinos had tied up in him). The ultimate result of it all was that Sammy and Kim were ended as a couple. They saw each other only a few more times at various premieres years later, dancing openly before crowds of reporters where hardly a care was given. It was the only time such was the case for them. They last met shortly before Davis' demise, the singer making sure he was impeccably dressed for the occasion despite being on his death bed.
Despite all the controversy and peril, it was around this time Kim did what is considered her best work, in a film many consider to be Alfred Hitchcock's most personal and riveting film - 1958's VERTIGO. Kim replaced Hitchcock's first choice, actress Vera Miles, after that actress became pregnant. Despite not being Hitchcock's first choice, Kim's performance in dual roles as the mysterious blonde Madeleine Elster, and her erudite brunette double Judy Barton, proved to be inspired casting. Appearing alongside her was screen legend Jimmy Stewart, playing a phobic private eye obsessed over the two women. She and Stewart's great chemistry was boosted by Kim's smokey seduction and real life turmoil over her image. It all came together to make VERTIGO one of the legendary director's greatest creations and Kim's finest screen effort - one she never had the chance to equal.
Kim and Stewart teamed up again in 1958, along with Jack Lemmon, for a screen adaption of the popular play (and possible inspiration for the TV show Bewitched) BELL, BOOK AND CANDLE, telling the story of a witch living in 20th century times who falls for a regular guy. Lighthearted comedies tended to clash with Kim's sultrier sensibilities, leaving her coming across somewhat flat in comparison to her more comedy comfortable costars. Subsequent films continued to misuse Kim's talents, among them 1962's THE NOTORIOUS LANDLADY and BOYS' NIGHT OUT, both of which seemed to place more emphasis on her physical attributes than her acting skills. Much of this downturn resulted from the death of studio boss Cohn in 1958. Cohn was in many ways Kim's nemesis, but also ironically her chief advocate, selecting her for many of her early successes thanks to the personal stake he took in her career. Once Cohn was gone, new studio heads, with no stake in Kim's future, began to sideline her in various mediocre projects. Still, external biases weren't the only factor in her decline.
Equally as damaging to her career were the films Kim passed on. Among the more noteworthy of the scripts she rejected are such classics as BREAKFAST AT TIFFANY'S, THE HUSTLER and DAYS OF WINE AND ROSES, any one of which could have been a huge shot in the arm for her career. One of Kim's choice of films, a remake of OF HUMAN BONDAGE in 1964, was a critical failure, as was her involvement with Billy Wilder's KISS ME, STUPID, which became bogged down by religious and moral outrage for it's open perspective on sexual themes, though it does enjoy a cult following today among many Wilder and Novak fans.
Further bombs in the form of films like THE AMOROUS ADVENTURES OF MOLL FLANDERS in 1965 began to sour Kim's interest in a movie career. FLANDERS did introduce her to the first man to became her husband, actor Richard Johnson. However, their marriage lasted less than a year. Soon all these failures and mediocre roles amounted to terrible state of disillusion for Kim, which prompted her to retire from acting altogether on multiple occasions throughout the late 60s and 70s. Periodic comebacks proved to be of little reward cinematically or professionally. By the 1980s, her career was on life support.
Kim managed to keep the acting work coming thanks to a languishing actor's best friend - 80's television. She did a recurring role on primetime soap opera Falcon Crest, playing the character Kit Marlowe, named for studio boss Cohn's first choice for Kim's screen name. She did the occasional movie role in this time, staring in films like the THE MIRROR CRACK'D, alongside Elizabeth Taylor and a crowd of other old Hollywood actors with waning careers. The movie ironically cast Kim and Taylor as fading screen queens. She appeared in the pilot for NBC's reboot of Alfred Hitchcock Presents in the mid 80s, playing opposite legendary director John Huston in a remake of the memorable original episode "The Man from the South." Her last role came in 1991 with the Mike Figgis thriller LIEBESTRAUM. Her on set clashes with director Figgis over the nature of her performance proved so disturbing to her that Kim effectively retired from acting for good.
Since then, Kim's life has since been devoted to her Oregon ranch and veterinarian husband, with whom she spends her days raising horses and llamas. A fire in 2000 claimed a number of valuable mementos from her career, as well as a computer which contained a long ruminating autobiography of her tumultuous life. Kim later remarked that the fire was a clear sign she had no business making such things public knowledge. Now in her early 80s, Kim has received tributes and lifetime achievement acclaim from numerous film societies and festivals. However, it may be her absence that's given her career the biggest boost since her heydays. Being left to the purview of many a classic movie fan, she has rightfully become a figure of mystery and remarkable beauty from the golden age of Hollywood. She thus enjoys a well earned reputation as one of Hollywood's most sultry screen beauties, who faded away far too soon.