Born Marilyn Novak on February 13, 1933 in Chicago, Illinois to onetime schoolteachers Joseph and Blanche Novak, young Marilyn was herself a difficult student who didn’t get along well with her teachers. An exceptionally beautiful child, she began modeling for a local department store in her teens. An avid painter, she won a scholarship to the Art Institute of Chicago but went to a local junior college instead. While on spring break she and two friends went to Los Angeles and stood in line to earn work as extras on 1954’s The French Line which led to her being hired as a model at the 1953 Academy Awards in March, 1954. Changing her name to Kim to avoid confusion with Marilyn Monroe, she landed major feature roles in 1954’s Pushover and Pffft and 1955’s 5 Against the House. Her next film would make her a major star.
At 22 the statuesque beauty seemed a bit too mature to play the 19 year-old beauty that enraptures both William Holden and Cliff Robertson in Picnic, but she was so perfectly cast that no one seemed to care. The film was a smash hit, earning her a BAFTA nomination for Best Foreign Actress, the only major acting award she would ever be nominated for.
Other major roles followed in such films as The Man With the Golden Arm in which one night with her cures Frank Sinatra’s drug addiction; The Eddy Duchin Story in which she plays the sophisticate to Tyrone Power’s naïve charmer; The Jeanne Eagels Story in which she plays the drug addicted actress; the chorus girl who falls for Sinatra in Pal Joey; the two women who drive James Stewart nuts in Vertigo; the witch who puts a spell on Stewart in Bell, Book and Candle; the secretary who attracts older man Fredric March in Middle of the Night; the married woman having an affair with Kirk Douglas in Strangers When We Meet; a murder suspect in The Notorious Landlady; a graduate student in Boys Night Out and Mildred Rogers in the third screen version of Of Human Bondage.
The 1964 version of Of Human Bondage opposite Laurence Harvey was such a flop that Novak’s career never recovered. Opening to indifferent reviews, it was followed later that year by Kiss Me, Stupid, by The Amorous Adventures of Moll Flanders in 1965 and The Legend of Lylah Clare in 1968, all of which were major flops.
Previously engaged to Richard Quine who directed her in Bell, Book and Candle and The Notorious Landlady, Novak married her Moll Flanders co-star Richard Johnson in 1965 but the marriage ended after 13 months. With her career pretty much over, she married veterinarian Dr. Robert Malloy (born 1940) in 1976. The two remain happily married living on a ranch in Oregon raising llamas and horses.
Only seen sporadically since, her last film of note was 1980’s The Mirror Crack’d in which she and Elizabeth Taylor appeared as murder suspects in the Agatha Christie mystery in support of Angela Lansbury as Miss Marple. She played in support of Jane Wyman in TV’s Falcon Crest for the 1986-87 season. Her last acting assignment was as star Kevin Anderson’s dying mother in 1991’s Liebestraum in which she fought constantly with director Mike Figgis, so much so that he cut her part to the point where she’s hardly in the film at all.
But as they say in Hollywood, once a star, always a star and a star is a star is a star. Kim Novak, despite not having made a movie in twenty-three years, remains one of Hollywood’s brightest stars at 81.
PICNIC (1955), directed by Joshua Logan
Novak’s iconic portrayal of Madge Owens remains one of the most vivid examples of screen beauty. Playing the older daughter of single mother Betty Field, she is known as “the pretty one” while younger sister Susan Strasberg is known as “the smart one”. Neither is happy with their designation causing sparks to fly. Novak, engaged to well off Cliff Robertson becomes romantically attracted to Robertson’s drifter friend, William Holden.
Novak and Holden’s slow dance to “Moonglow” interrupted by frustrated middle-aged schoolteacher Rosalind Russell is the film’s highlight.
THE EDDY DUCHIN STORY (1956), directed by George Sidney
Novak’s portrayal of Marjorie Oelrichs, raised by Averill Harriman, later governor of New York, and his wife, who becomes the first Mrs. Eddy Duchin is Novak’s most charming performance. The film, in which all of Novak’s scenes take place in a beautifully recreated New York of the 1930s, provides the actress with a lovely backdrop in which to act opposite Tyrone Power in the title role. It’s quite a feat of movie magic for the seasoned actor in one of his last roles to play young and naïve while the relatively inexperienced Novak plays a more sophisticated, more experienced woman of the world without either of them making a false note.
Novak’s death scene is one the screen’s most tragic and memorable.
VERTIGO (1958), directed by Alfred Hitchcock
Now considered Hitchcock’s masterpiece and one of the greatest films of all time, Vertigo opened to mixed reviews and modest box office returns, something I’ve never understood having seen and loved the film at 14, but I digress. Hitchcock’s use of San Francisco area locations and the extraordinary performance of James Stewart at his best did, at least, receive praise from the outset. The greatness of Novak’s necessarily muted portrayals of a woman who is murdered and her doppelganger is more difficult to fathom but time has been kind to her performance which is now regarded as one of the iconic performances of all time, often imitated, but never matched.
MIDDLE OF THE NIGHT (1959), directed by Delbert Mann
Novak, in a rare attempt at playing an ordinary working girl, delivers a strong performance opposite Fredric March in one of his best roles as an elderly widowed workaholic who falls in love with her sad-eyed recently widowed secretary. Too bad the film wasn’t a bigger hit, it might have earned Novak that forever elusive Oscar nomination she never received.
The film features strong supporting work form Glenda Farrell as Novak’s mother and Lee Grant as March’s daughter.
THE NOTORIOUS LANDLADY (1962), directed by Richard Quine
A wry, witty comedy-mystery with enchanting performances by Novak and Jack Lemmon at their best, superbly assisted by Fred Astaire, Lionel Jeffries and Estelle Winwood who almost walks away with the film, or better stated, almost rolls away with it in her wheelchair.
Novak is Lemmon’s landlady, suspected of having committed a murder. Astaire is Lemmon’s State Department boss. Jeffries is a befuddled police inspector. Winwood is Winwood. The end chase to the music of Gilbert & Sullivan is a delight all its own.
KIM NOVAK AND OSCAR
- No nominations, no wins.