The last of the studio produced and promoted stars, Kim Novak was a sex symbol of the 1950s and 60s, and starred in some of the classic movies of the period. Although not the most gifted of actresses, she had a magnetic screen presence which catapulted her to the top.
Despite Novak’s obvious beauty, her first agent refused to sign her contract until “you take off weight.” She did but even then, things did not go swimmingly. Her first screen test at Columbia Pictures drew this from studio boss Harry Cohn: “I can’t hear what she is saying…She can’t act.”
Cohn, who was often wrong — or pretended to be wrong for salary bargaining reasons — about talent potential, was reminded by a more astute studio hands that the former Marilyn Novak (born in Chicago in 1933) was like many stellar predecessors. “They are great personalities. That’s what this kid is. She’ll never be able to act, but that doesn’t matter. She’s got star quality.”
She was promptly turned over to studio hands for glamorization, and her career was off and running. First order of business was to jettison her given name (in deference to another blond with a prior claim), and Novak picked “Kim” because it was short and sweet. She insisted on retaining her surname.
Her career flourished. In 1959 alone, she was the only actress to rank among Hollywood’s top 10 box office stars, a list otherwise dominated by males. So how did Novak make that list?
Besides appearing with Frank Sinatra and Rita Hayworth in Pal Joey, she had costarred with Ty Power in The Eddy Duchin Story, which had scored big.
BUT, more importantly, she had carried a picture all by herself ! It was a small black and white drama biopic, 1957’s Jeanne Eagels. And it grossed over $4 million, a huge hit in those days.
Jeanne Eagels was an ill-fated Broadway star of the 1920s who’d originated the role of Sadie Thompson in Rain. By playing her, Novak finally realized her value to Columbia Pictures. She complained vociferously to Cohn that while she was paid $13,000 for paying the title role in Jeanne Eagels, her male costar (Jeff Chandler) was paid a fast $200,000.
A brouhaha ensued with Cohn finally caving — on Novak’s terms. She emerged a star at last, one with real box office clout.
She’s a veteran of some 35 movie credits, and she can still stir up a fuss (see internet stories about last year’s Academy Awards telecast) at age 82.
More important, she is the stellar linchpin of what may well be that finest of classics — Alfred Hitchcock’s 1958 thriller Vertigo.
The film was voted in 2012 “the best film ever made” in the once-a-decade poll of international critics conducted by British movie journal, Sight & Sound, superseding Citizen Kane. That may not have happened without Novak’s strong performance. (She was the director’s second choice for the femme fatale role. Vera Miles was first but was unavailable due to pregnancy.)
Novak also charted an independent course offscreen. She famously carried on an affair with Sammy Davis Jr. at a time when interracial romances were strictly verboten for a front-ranked Hollywoood actress. The situation almost caused Columbia’s Cohn to literally have a heart attack. The matter ended when Davis was told by Chicago-connected “friends” of Cohn to desist or find himself unemployable.
Kim Novak — quite a woman offscreen and on.