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An enduring bombshell

Kim Novak, now retired and living in Oregon, recalls a career making movies that still thrill.

January 11, 2004|Susan King | Times Staff Writer

Kim NOVAK'S initial purpose in Hollywood was twofold -- at least as far as Columbia Pictures' iron-willed studio chief Harry Cohn was concerned. To Cohn, his beautiful starlet would help quell any rebellion by the studio's leading love goddess, Rita Hayworth (he hoped she'd fear being replaced), and Novak would also be a worthy rival to blond bombshell Marilyn Monroe, who worked across town at Fox.

But Novak quickly proved much more than a Hayworth wannabe or a Monroe pretender. From 1954 to '64, she worked with some of the industry's top directors, including Alfred Hitchcock ("Vertigo"), Billy Wilder ("Kiss Me, Stupid"), Joshua Logan ("Picnic"), George Sidney ("Pal Joey"), Richard Quine ("Pushover," "Bell, Book and Candle"), Otto Preminger ("Man With the Golden Arm") and Phil Karlson ("Five Against the House"). After just two years in Hollywood, she became the No. 1 box office star in 1956 and held that ranking for three years.

But since the mid-1960s, save for an occasional movie or TV role, Novak basically bid Hollywood goodbye. Her last film role was in Mike Figgis' offbeat "Liebestraum" (1991).

Now 70 and living on a ranch in Oregon with her veterinarian husband, Novak says she has no regrets. "I had some amazing roles when I first started out," she explains by phone. "Then they kind of typecast you. They start putting you in all the same kind of things, and that didn't go down well for me. I wasn't in it for the money or the fame; to me it was all about the expression of something I could give that maybe no one else could in quite the same way. I felt like I had a real purpose.

"But suddenly, when the directors maybe aren't that great and the roles ... there is nothing you feel you can contribute. I didn't want to stagnate as a person. I wanted to keep developing. I got more into my painting and artwork. I felt that at least I was growing and becoming more [fulfilled] rather than sitting around Hollywood and waiting for a good script."

Novak's reputation as an actress has gained stature over the decades; she was honored in 1997 with the Golden Bear Award at the Berlin International Film Festival for lifetime achievement and last year was presented the Eastman Archives Award for her contribution to film, joining such previous honorees as Greta Garbo, Audrey Hepburn and Meryl Streep.

The American Cinematheque at the Egyptian Theatre is paying tribute with a three-day retrospective titled "Elusive Legend: An In-Person Tribute to Kim Novak." It kicks off Friday with "Picnic," the 1955 adaptation of William Inge's Pulitzer Prize-winning play. Novak plays a small-town beauty who falls in love with a handsome drifter (William Holden) -- the duo's dance to "Moonglow" is one of the most erotic sequences ever put on film. Also screening Friday is 1957's "Jeanne Eagels," in which Novak plays the Broadway star whose life was marred by drug and alcohol problems.

Novak is scheduled to attend Saturday's screening of her most popular film, Hitchcock's 1958 classic "Vertigo," in which she plays the dual role of Madeleine and Judy, who become the obsession of a San Francisco police detective (Jimmy Stewart). The controversial 1964 Wilder comedy "Kiss Me, Stupid," in which she plays a floozy with a heart of gold, also screens that evening.

The retrospective concludes Sunday with a double bill of 1958's "Bell, Book and Candle," which finds her playing a witch who falls for a mortal (Stewart again), and the 1957 musical "Pal Joey" with Frank Sinatra and Hayworth.

The cover of Time

Novak said she got to help pick some of the films for the retrospective, including "Jeanne Eagels," a movie she loves. "No one -- in America, anyway -- liked this movie" when it came out, she says. "It had terrible reviews, but I still like it, so I am curious to see what the reaction is today. I worked so hard on the film to get into the character, so much so that still I carry Jeanne Eagels with -- her mannerisms that I learned just became part of me."

She was devastated by the reviews. "I was in Rome at the time, I think, and Time magazine came out with me on the cover. Of course I was excited and then I read on the inside this terrible review. I hadn't been in show business enough to know that everybody gets terrible reviews. I thought I was the only one."

Though it's now considered one of Wilder's best films from the 1960s, "Kiss Me, Stupid" not only flopped at the box office, it had problems with censors who deemed it a crude sex comedy. "It's not a big deal now," Novak says. "I know it hurt Billy Wilder and, in fact, they were already writing the sequel because they thought it was going to be really great."

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