Kim Novak and the ‘Vertigo’ of aging beauty
When 81-year-old actress Kim Novak walked out on to the Oscars stage Sunday night to present the award for best animated feature, titled, unfortunately for her, Frozen, she looked very different from the screen siren of old. Her face looked distorted by plastic surgery.
Novak had not managed the trick of altering herself just enough to be considered “natural.” The response was as rapid as it was vicious. Twitter exploded in snark over the frozen look of Novak’s face. Commenters fumed that she had not aged “gracefully” like fellow presenter and octogenarian Angela Lansbury, whose own admitted nips and tucks had rendered a more acceptable look. (Though Lansbury was never really considered a sex symbol.)
Headlines about Novak’s “shocking” appearance popped up on virtually every entertainment site. On Monday, the ladies at ABC’s The View offered that perhaps Novak ought to closet herself. Even Donald Trump, no stranger to ridicule, piled on the mockery.
A screen siren is supposed to be immutable — the eternal feminine. She is frozen in time, and fixed in place by our gaze. When such a woman acts off-script, when she ages, for example, it offends us. Her alteration gives us unpleasant inklings about our own mortality. Better to leave her sealed inside a movie reel, preserved for generations to fixate on.
Analyzing beauty destroys it. We aren’t supposed to be aware of the tricks — the lighting, the make-up, the hair. When plastic surgery announces itself as plastic surgery, it disturbs the illusion of beauty and makes us uneasy. In our narcissism, we want to identify with an ideal. Anything else and we instinctively recoil.
For violating our expectations of proper sex symbol aging, Novak got a media flogging. Maybe she was used to it by now: Hollywood had wounded her well over half a century ago.
Marilyn Pauline Novak arrived in Hollywood in the early 1950s as — hold the tweets! — “Miss Deepfreeze,” the spokesmodel for a refrigerator company. The plump, shy young woman quickly learned that getting movie work required a head-to-toe makeover.
Columbia studio boss and epic control freak Harry Cohn ordered her to ditch the Slavic surname. She refused, consenting only to change her first name to “Kim.” But there was no resisting demands to alter her appearance: Cap those teeth! Bleach that hair! Trim that body!
Doubtful that the person he reportedly called “that fat Polack” could sell as an “It Girl,” Cohn put her on a strict diet. He would decide what she ate, what she wore, and whom she dated. When his blonde goddess defied him by dating Sammy Davis Jr., Cohn threatened the black star with mob violence unless he gave her up, according to Vanity Fair’s Sam Kashner.
Novak may have managed to fend off Cohn’s own sexual advances, but she had to put up with the rest, carrying deep resentment and a permanent wound as her star ascended.
It was this edgy, wounded quality that made Novak a standout on screen. She was a beauty uncomfortable in her own skin, signaling torment even at her most seductive.
Her performance in Picnic (1955), as a small-town girl seeking to be loved for herself and not her looks, was mesmerizing enough to gain the notice of Alfred Hitchcock. The director cast her in Vertigo (1958), now regularly cited as one of the best films ever made.
Novak portrays the brunette shop girl Judy, who pretends to be the aristocratic, blonde Madeleine to help pull off a murder plot. When Scottie, a police detective played by Jimmy Stewart, falls in love with the mysterious Madeleine, Judy must keep up the fantasy to retain his affection.
“Wouldn’t you like me, just me the way I am?” pleads Judy. No, he wouldn’t. Any time her real self peeks through, Scottie’s joy quickly turns to despair.
In many interviews, including a 2012 discussion with the British Film Institute, Novak described her identification with Judy: “The role appealed to me because it was the resistance of Judy — who was in a sense me — trying to become the Hollywood person, trying to be Madeleine, needing to loved, and willing to be made over.”
She recalls Hitchcock’s total fixation on her hair, her clothing, her make-up — as if the director was embodying the obsession of Scottie, whose fanatical gaze follows Judy/Madeleine throughout the film.
The movie screen is a magical mirror that reflects our fantasies and obsessions.
In her influential essay, “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema,” film critic Laura Mulvey focuses on classic Hollywood’s ability to deliver sumptuous visual pleasure by making women the object of the male gaze.
That turns out to be a tricky place to be. The screen siren, particularly the carefully groomed star of the old studio system, may be an object of pleasure, but her image also evokes a certain anxiety. To quell this anxiety, she must be either punished or tamed into a fetish object. Both these things happen in Vertigo, as Scottie alternately feeds his desire by fetishizing Madeleine and acts out his discomfort by punishing Judy. In the end, Judy is unable to fulfill his fantasies, and must die.
Part of Hitchcock’s brilliance was to make the audience feel complicit in the fantasies projected on to the screen. When Judy dies in Vertigo, there’s a haunting feeling that we have participated, with Scottie and the director himself, in idealizing and punishing this agonized woman.
“I walked into danger and let you change me because I loved you,” Judy tells Scottie.
Obviously, it wasn’t enough.
PHOTO (TOP): Matthew McConaughey and Kim Novak present at the 86th Academy Awards in Hollywood, California, March 2, 2014. REUTERS/Lucy Nicholson
PHOTO (INSERT 1): Actress Kim Novak smiles at photographers after she received the “Golden Bear Award” for her liftetime achievment at the 47th annual Berlin film festival, February 21, 1997. REUTERS/Fabrizio Bensch
PHOTO (Insert 2): Actress Kim Novak gesture on stage during the closing ceremony of the 66th Cannes Film Festival in Cannes, May 26, 2013. REUTERS/Eric Gaillard