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CineAction (1999) - Kim Novak: "Vertigo," Performance and Image




I am writing on Kim Novak's contribution to Vertigo, her ninth feature film, because it has been overlooked and undervalued. Novak has long been an actor I greatly admire; she had already proven herself a performer of genuine talent with The Man With the Golden Arm and, particularly, Picnic but it is with Vertigo that the core of Novak's screen image is fully realized. Vertigo is also, in my opinion, Alfred Hitchcock's finest achievement.

I have previously written on Kim Novak's career in CineAction No. 7. This piece concentrates on Novak's work with Hitchcock and the extraordinary results it produces.

Kim Novak

Kim Novak was chosen by Harry Cohn in 1953 to replace Rita Hayworth, Columbia Pictures' reigning sex symbol. Cohn gave Novak, a twenty-one-year-old aspiring model who had no professional acting experience, a huge publicity build up and launched her career with a low budget film noir, Richard Quine's Pushover (1954), which co-starred her with Fred MacMurray. Novak was cast as the femme fatale. The film was followed quickly with a supporting role in Phffft (1954), a Judy Holliday comedy. In Phffft, Novak played a dumb blonde patterned on the roles that Marilyn Monroe had specialized in during the early 1950s and, Mark Robson, the film's director, encouraged Novak to imitate Monroe. Novak gained serious critical attention when Cohn cast her as the female lead of Joshua Logan's Picnic (1955) and then lent her to Otto Preminger for his highly controversial and dramatic The Man With the Golden Arm (1955). During this period, Novak received essentially favourable reviews although the critics, while noting her charisma, were reluctant to acknowledge that Novak truly possessed acting talent. Novak's status as an actor remained uncertain, but her popularity with the public wasn't in doubt. By 1956, Novak was considered Hollywood's top female box-office property.

Columbia Pictures, encouraged by her ability to garner a respectable critical reaction in high profile projects, cast Novak in the title role of Jeanne Eagels (1957). With Jeanne Eagels, Novak was burdened with a double responsibility — playing a self-destructive, highly talented theatrical actress of the 1920s, she was to prove that she could 'act' and, as her male co-star was Jeff Chandler, a B film actor, carry the film's box-office value. While Novak had received good press for The Eddy Duchin Story (1956), a George Sidney film, her work in Jeanne Eagels was considered incompetent; furthermore, the film, despite a massive publicity campaign, failed to be the commercial success the studio anticipated. The damage Jeanne Eagels did was compounded when later in the year, Pal Joey, another George Sidney film, was released. Novak's performance was brutally panned, and the mainstream press began saying that Novak had never been anything other than a manufactured star foisted on the public. It was in this context that Novak, in 1958, appeared in Hitchcock's Vertigo. While her reviews weren't particularly negative, there was no indication that Novak's contribution to the film deserved recognition. However, Vertigo is the film in which Novak confirmed the potential she displayed so clearly in her previous films. Bell, Book and Candle (1958) and Strangers When We Meet (1960), both directed by Richard Quine, illustrate that Novak benefited from the experience of making Vertigo. These films contain subtle, expressive performances but Novak's growth as an actor continued to be ignored — the closest she came to 'serious' acting occurred with Delbert Mann's Middle of the Night (1959), an attempt to distance herself from her movie star identification. Middle of the Night didn't significantly alter Novak's reputation with the critics nor did her performance as Mildred in Ken Hughes...

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