Movie Stars: Novak, Kim–World’s Most Popular Actress, 1956-1958

Audiences have always understood and loved the beautiful actress Kim Novak, yet many movie critics have often misjudged or underestimated her work.  The popular notion was that her screen presence was too reliant on her beauty and her acting too simplistic, compared to actors of her generation.

In retrospect, Novak’s work is receiving more acclaim with the passage of time. She is being recognized and honored for her acting ability. Novak’s most recent awards include the prestigious Golden Bear for lifetime achievement at the Berlin International Film Festival. In 2003 Novak was presented with the Eastman (Kodak) Archives Award for her major contribution to film (prior honorees include Greta Garbo, Audrey Hepburn, James Stewart, Martin Scorsese and Meryl Streep).

Novak was also the recipient of a special tribute from the American Cinematheque in Hollywood where her films were shown at the Egyptian Theatre in January 2004. She made a rare personal appearance with a Q&A onstage between the showings of Bell, Book & Candle (1958) and Vertigo (1958).

In 1956, Novak became the No. 1 box office star in the world, and she held that position for three solid years of outstanding filmmaking.

Knowing that nothing lasts forever, and not wanting to fall prey to the tragic endings that often resulted when stars and sex symbols got lost in identity crises, Novak made a decision to walk away from Hollywood. It took great courage to turn her back on a successful and lucrative career when she was at her peak, but she felt the need to go in search of herself to learn what she really wanted out of life. Novak moved to a cliffside dwelling along the wild coast of Big Sur, Calif., with the purpose of creating a new lifestyle in harmony with nature while combining it with her love of painting and writing poetry. One of her poems was made into a song and recorded by the Kingston Trio and Harry Belafonte.

Born Marilyn Pauline Novak in Chicago, Illinois, she was the daughter of a history teacher who, during the Depression, became a railroad freight dispatcher. Her mother was a factory worker. Novak and her older sister, Arlene, were raised in a close-knit, lower middle-class family of Czech descent.

As a teenager, she won several scholarships to the prestigious Art Institute of Chicago. Novak was fully intent on exploring her painting in different mediums, and had never thought about being an actress.

Miss Deepfreeze

In her mother’s attempt to help Novak overcome her shyness and become more outgoing, she encouraged her daughter to join a teenage club where she began modeling. It was during her summer vacation from her first semester at Wright Junior College that she won the title of “Miss Deepfreeze” and traveled across the country showing refrigerators.

When the tour ended in California, she stayed for the rest of the summer and signed with a local modeling agency. They got her a job appearing in two movies along with 20 other models when she was discovered by an agent and signed to a contract at Columbia Pictures. She earned her Associate Arts degree while learning at the studio during her first year in Hollywood.

Harry Cohn, the studio head at the time, decided to mold his most recent starlet, Novak, into a new “Love Goddess” to challenge his superstar, Rita Hayworth, as well as to compete with the already-established sex symbol, Marilyn Monroe.

Novak was in the right place at the right time, but she felt insecure because of her lack of acting experience. She began to study with the studio’s acting coaches Benno Schneider and his wife, Batami. Novak never forgot Benno’s advice: “Don’t try to act,” he would plead. “Let the other actors show off their technique. You should just be yourself, real. Never be ashamed to expose your soul and share your feelings. Let the world experience your pain, your joy, and your passion. The camera will become your best friend. You have good instincts—trust them.” She did just that, and she did it her way.

Novak’s first assignment was opposite Fred MacMurray in Pushover (1954), a moody film noir directed by Richard Quine. She was the breakout performer in that film and it led to her second film, playing a beautiful Broadway playgirl in the George Axelrod comedy, Phffft (1954), opposite Judy Holliday and Jack Lemmon.

The movie 5 Against the House (1955) followed, after which Novak was loaned to independent producer-director Otto Preminger for The Man with the Golden Arm (1955) in which she played the compassionate girlfriend of a drug addict, played by Frank Sinatra, who helped him recover from his addiction.

Her starring roles as the small-town country girl in the film version of William Inge’s Picnic (1955), directed by Joshua Logan, and as the socialite wife of Tyrone Power in The Eddy Duchin Story (1956), put her on the ma as a major actress and star as both were commercial hits, and Picnic was nominated for the Best Picture and other Oscars.

In Jeanne Eagels (1957), opposite Jeff Chandler, she portrayed the title role of the tempestuous Broadway star of the 1920s.

In the Rodgers and Hart musical, Pal Joey (1957), she starred with Rita Hayworth and Frank Sinatra.

In 1958 she starred with James Stewart in Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo, which is considered to be one of the director’s masterpieces.  Thea Library of Congress named that film a national treasure, chosen during the first time the National Film Registry decided to start adding 25 films a year to the Library of Congress.

She followed Vertigo with a comedy Bell, Book & Candle, again opposite Stewart and Jack Lemmon. In her next film, Middle of the Night (1959), she played a much less glamorous love interest of her aging employer, Fredric March, and she really shone as an actress.

Her films in the early 1960s displayed her versatility in Strangers When We Meet (1960), with Kirk Douglas, and the off-beat comedy The Notorious Landlady (1962), with Jack Lemmon again.

Novak was the first actor (and woman) to negotiate an ownership deal of her own product, as soon as her original Columbia contract ended. The deal was negotiated by her long-time agent, Norman Brokaw, now chair of the board of William Morris. She formed her own production company and did Boys Night Out (1962).

She and then went to Ireland to star in the third version of Somerset Maugham’s novel, Of Human Bondage (1964), with Laurence Harvey.

Her next film, Billy Wilder’s Kiss Me, Stupid (1964), shocked the Legion of Decency when it was released, but it was rediscovered and acclaimed for its forward thinking in 2001, and has been playing special engagements in art houses ever since, particularly for Novak’s performance as “Polly the Pistol.”

Novak returned to England to star in The Amorous Adventures of Moll Flanders (1965), and married her co-star Richard Johnson.

In The Legend of Lylah Clare (1968), Novak again played a dual role (which seemed to be a theme in her work) as an early day screen star and the younger actress chosen by an obsessed director to recreate her.

Following The Great Bank Robbery (1969), Novak returned to Big Sur.

In 1976, Novak, now divorced, married equine veterinarian Dr. Robert Malloy. To this day she aids in the care of horses and other animals alongside her husband. They also spend time exploring the Oregon mountains and forests on horseback. This has afforded Novak the opportunity to capture special moments and moods of the wilderness and its wildlife through the lens of her digital camera.

Though Novak’s first priority is her private life, she has occasionally taken some projects like Just a Gigolo (1978) opposite David Bowie, or The Mirror Crack’d (1980), with Rock Hudson, Elizabeth Taylor and Tony Curtis.

Several years later, she worked with Ben Kingsley on The Children (1990), then appeared in British director Mike Figgis’ Liebestraum (1991).

Novak and Malloy’s home burned to the ground, destroying much of Novak’s artwork, years of writing her autobiography, and priceless artifacts of her film career. After absorbing the shock, Novak viewed it as a new beginning, and turned the work of building a new home into a challenge to take on another art form. She not only designed the home from out of the ashes of the last, but she herself painted the walls with murals, and sculpted a portion of the entry with her verse to represent their lifestyle, their animals, and her dreams.

Over the past few years, Novak has expressed herself through her art. Her paintings are primarily impressionistic and emotional, though she has never publically exhibited them.

Novak possessed that “special thing”–call it magic–which enabled her to endure the test of time. For a decade or so, she was luminescent on screen, exhibiting the kind of stardom that can’t be taught in school.