Friday, March 7, 2014

On aging, beauty, the Oscars, and Kim Novak

She was the “anti-Marilyn” sex symbol, a defiantly sensuous creature onscreen who seemed to defy the viewer's lustful gaze. She was a “thinking man's bombshell” who wasn't the greatest actress in Fifties Hollywood, but her virtues as a intoxicating presence were wonderfully showcased by the wildly underrated Richard Quine, the bombastic George Sidney, and the of course, the master of suspense (and obsessive-compulsive behavior), Hitchcock.

This week Kim Novak was back in the news for the first time in decades because she appeared as a presenter on the Oscars looking as if she had had bad plastic surgery on her cheeks and mouth (she also behaved somewhat stiffly, as if she was on sedatives — speculation was that this might have been a result of her having a horse-riding accident in 2006).

A debate was thus sparked on the Net about what is “expected” of female stars as they grow older, led mostly by women bloggers who were (justly) annoyed at the many bad “Kim Novak's face” jokes that have appeared online since Sunday night.

One of the most interesting tweets having to do with Novak's appearance on the Oscars came from actress Rose McGowan (herself a performer who has been rapped on the knuckles for having had plastic surgery, following a car accident). She wondered why there was no standing ovation for Novak – on a program, it must be added, where all the musical performances and pretty much any beloved performer gets a “standing O” as a matter of course.

Novak was a major star in the Fifties and early Sixties, but she was also an outsider — she was one of the last major-studio “creations,” remade and remodeled by Columbia president Harry Cohn to star in a string of notable high-profile pictures (and serve as a “threat” to Rita Hayworth, much in the way that Marilyn was a threat to Betty Grable).

While she underwent all of Cohn's demanded changes — she had actually been discovered by a Columbia talent scout in a chorus line of “heftier” girls grouped together to make Jane Russell look slimmer — Kim retained as much of her identity as she could. “I had to fight not to be manufactured, “ she told an interviewer recently. This brash attitude made her the polar opposite of the Monroe/Mansfield/Van Doren model of the blonde bimbo sexpot.

There are only two books thus far about Novak, and one of them – the one by Peter Harry Brown in which she supplies “commentary” in between the chapters – is quite accurately called Kim Novak: Reluctant Goddess (St. Martin's Press, 1986). It is her reluctance to be part of the Hollywood machine that made her recent foray into plastic surgery such a surprise and a sad event for those who've followed her career.

Kim's “comments” in the Brown biography are very enlightening in this regard, especially one about being a sex symbol: “You become a slave to the glamour-girl syndrome. They require certain public rituals, and, though I smile and go through the motions, I guess I'll never get used to them. You have to play a role – the star, the glamour girl. That gives me an uneasy feeling. Even though you appreciate the attention of the fans, you wonder if people who come to watch would like you if they knew who you really are.

“...But no matter how much makeup they put on me, no matter how much of a facade they thrust on me, I know the public was always able to see through it – to see the real me – that was some compensation. I fought, and fought hard, to maintain my own identity.” (pp 40-41)

Let me emphasize that I am not condemning Novak for having gone in for “de-aging” surgery. I am merely saddened to see that she finally did consent to play Hollywood’s game, and at such a late point in her life. At this point she has quit acting, often citing Mike Figgis’ 1991 film Liebestraum as her final disappointment. (She has spoken in interviews about how she argued with Figgis in regard to her character. He disagreed with her, and proceeded to cut most of her part out of the picture. As it stands, my only memory of her performance is a vague one of a quite sleazy line of dialogue involving another woman's smell on a man's fingers....)

In the 1986 Brown biography, she is quoted as saying “I have also never been afraid of getting old. To tell you the truth, I never cared that much about my career.... I was more interested in trying to find myself so I could express that essence onscreen.” (p. 255) She apparently underwent the surgery (or series of botox injections) sometime in late 2010, as is evident from this photo promoting the release of a box set of her movies.

There have been several sad cases of actresses deforming their faces with surgery in the last two decades – mostly notably Faye Dunaway, comedic actresses Mary Tyler Moore and Carol Burnett, and the Jocelyn Wildenstein of comedy, Joan Rivers.

Younger, very successful actresses like Nicole Kidman have indulged and have subsequently seemed to try to “set things right” by “un-freezing” their features. The most extreme example found Cher, who had developed an extremely respectable career as an actress, sabotage it entirely with face work that made her look as if she was performing behind a Kabuki mask (this as far back as 1990’s Mermaids, where she is unable to cry convincingly because of the immobility of her face).

As for Novak (seen right at the age of 71 in 2004), she was all the more special as a Hollywood star because she “pulled a Garbo” and got the hell out of town while the gettin’ was good. True, her fortunes were uncertain after the mid-Sixties, but she didn’t stick around to play a slew of aging matrons, maids, and (the eventual) grandmothers. She made a handful of movies and TV appearances in the Seventies and Eighties, with only a scant few (The Mirror Crack’d) being worthy of her talents and presence.

Thus, she would be one of the last older stars one could imagine worrying about wrinkles. However, those who saw the TCM interview with her that aired in March of last year witnessed a side of her personality that was well hidden during her heyday as one of America’s top box-office attractions: the vulnerable, sad woman who could still break down and cry when talking about her father’s disinterest in her accomplishments.

In that interview she also spoke openly about being bipolar. The moment when she cried on-camera was heartwrenching because it didn’t seem staged or phony, as so many interviews do (pick any of the many, many apologies made on television by public figures). It explained why she hadn’t consented to being interviewed at length in a very long time.

If a cream-puff interviewer like Robert Osborne could unintentionally lead to a topic that would make her break down, one can only imagine the kind of fascinating chat she could’ve had with the dean of star interviewers, the great Dick Cavett, in his prime.

Despite her wonderfully defiant presence, Novak was and is a fragile soul who has often noted that she never really wanted to be a star. She has also, as was noted by the bloggers who rose to her defense, lived through seeing her possessions go up in a fire in 2000, had the aforementioned horse-riding accident, and survived breast cancer just a few years ago.

Thus, when not mentored by major-studio advisers — from the nasty but effective Cohn to her one-time companion Quine — she seems like a woman adrift. And there we again collide with the question that sympathetic bloggers have been discussing in the past week — namely “how should an aging movie star look?”

Perhaps the only two stars who kept their privacy in their later years — one can’t help but cringe thinking of the final months of Bette Davis, where she continued to perform post-stroke, heavily made up — are the “Glimmer Twins” of Thirties glamour, two of the most beautiful women ever in film, Garbo and Dietrich. Garbo’s solution we all know; she simply left Hollywood and never came back — I know she toyed with returning at one point (with the amazing Max Ophuls), but the project sadly lost its financing.
Dietrich (who coincidentally had her last movie role in David Hemmings’ film Just a Gigolo, which costarred Kim) took a more radical approach. She stayed hidden in her Paris apartment, not granting interviews and not allowing pictures to be taken of her — only her voice is heard in the late Maximilian Schell’s superb 1984 portrait Marlene. Along the same lines, Billy Wilder told documentarian Volker Schlondorff a wonderful tale about Dietrich ducking him on the phone (affecting a bad French accent) in her later years when he tried to connect with her in Paris.
Novak certainly doesn’t have to be as extreme in her behavior as Greta and Marlene. One could easily imagine her going the route of another one-time Hollywood pin-up girl, Janet Leigh. Leigh might have had “touch-ups” as she got older, but I was always impressed that she let herself get wrinkled — something that is absolutely verboten in Lotus Land. The result might have been that some assholes made jokes about her appearance, but Leigh’s face was still her own, not a surgeon’s “project,” until her death.

For the male equivalent, take a look at Anthony Hopkins. Hopkins’ creased forehead is so much more laudable than the odd appearance of, say, Mickey Rourke.

Nathanael West taught us 75 years ago in The Day of the Locust that Hollywood eats up and spits out its denizens. There is no better example of this than the Oscars, a deadly dull affair (leavened in theory by attempts at “comedy”) that these days allows no time for an appreciation of the history of American movies.

The film-clip montages are few and far between, and contain nearly no b&w material; the Lifetime Achievement Awards are presented at another, prior ceremony, and aren’t allowed on the main broadcast anymore; and, of course, older stars are rarely seen on the program.
Sidney Poitier, Robert De Niro, and Harrison Ford were the only other “older” [read: over 70] performers on this year’s Oscars; Hollywood’s idea of “veteran performers” now points strictly to TV stars who later became movie stars (60-somethings Sally Field, Goldie Hawn, John Travolta, and Bill Murray). Glenn Close is over 60 but best known for film.

Why all these names? To illustrate that Novak was the ONLY person on the program who had a link to old Hollywood, and they had her curiously present the Best Animated Feature award.

Hollywood essentially spits on its past (unless it can merchandise it — thus the Wizard of Oz trib), and we get to watch it on television every year. This time out a great star who had one of the most intriguing screen presences of the Fifties became a laughingstock because she chose to eliminate her wrinkles and went to the wrong surgeon.

The fact that she felt that was necessary is attributable not only to her own insecurities, but to the fact that America has a problem with age and thus does not want to see stars who carry their age proudly, like Janet Leigh or Anthony Hopkins.

Kim’s star will continue to shine brightly. I hope that she can “do a Nicole Kidman” and possibly reverse whatever procedures she underwent, but even if she can’t she will remain a luminous presence, and her films will live on. From the terrific noir Pushover (1954) and the iconic Fifties “lust-drama” Picnic (1955) to Billy Wilder’s brilliantly nasty Kiss Me, Stupid (1964) and Robert Aldrich’s equally incisive and brutal The Legend of Lylah Clare (1968), she has given movie viewers a lot more than we’ve given her.


Lisa H. said...

Excellent piece! I'm glad you could provide a more complex view of Kim Novak than merely bad jokes or heated debates about women, aging, and plastic surgery --- none of which are really about her at all...

misospecial said...

I'm with you on the dullness of the Oscars now that they have no interest in linking to Hollywood's rich past. And I think you got to an important point at the end when you mentioned America's problem with age (not just the entertainment industry's).

But I still think it's presumptuous to say it's better when people don't try to look their best. If you know women who are getting older I can assure you that some of them are getting work done regardless of their occupation, else the Lifestyle Lift people would not be raking it in hand over fist.

She might have seen a good surgeon and had a bad outcome; it happens. Tell you one thing from personal experience: After all that stuff Novak has gone through in recent years, cancer and fire and falling off a horse, the chance to spiff herself up a little might have seemed like a little compensation for all that pain and trouble. Something she could have a little bit of control over. She doesn't seem to let the fact that it didn't work out so well keep her from going to festivals and screenings. Or the Oscars, for that matter. And that, I think, bolsters her claim of not taking it all too seriously.