She was born Marilyn Novak in Chicago in 1933, and she always said she never wanted to be an actress, much less a star. She came to California as “Miss Deep Freeze,” demonstrating appliances on a sales tour. She said, “I could open a refrigerator door gracefully, that was it, period. I could see where a lot of time might go by before any movie studio would want a girl to open an icebox.”
Turned out that the legendary Harry Cohn of Columbia did want Marilyn — albeit because Rita Hayworth’s career was on the slide and the way Cohn saw it, he needed another sex symbol. At first he wasn’t sure he could make anything of Novak. The card at the modeling agency where the 20-year-old was working said: “Hands, marginal; legs, hefty; neck and face, flawless.”
Cohn put Novak on a stringent diet, all the while calling her “that fat Polack” (Novak’s background is Czech) behind her back. She followed an exercise regime. She was assigned a make-up artist. Her teeth were capped. Her hair was dyed blonde, then rinsed to make it gleam lavender in the light.
Her name was changed, since in the 1950s Marilyn was what you might call already taken. Cohn wanted “Kit” but Novak figured something so close to “kitten” was already stereotyping her, and she suggested Kim. She insisted on keeping her last name, which Cohn thought too ethnic.
“I made you, I can break you,” was Cohn’s refrain to Novak and many another actor. She was a naturally shy, insecure woman and Cohn liked it that way. He’d call Novak into his office and read her every bad review she got. And she got plenty; Novak was never a darling of the press. If she tried something dramatic, she was wooden. If she did a sexy role, she was too heavy, too dumb. When she went to the Oscars one year and posed on the red carpet, one columnist sniped that Novak was “aping Marilyn’s every move.”
Where there was an especially cruel phrase in an article, Cohn would read it to Kim an extra time or two, for emphasis.
Novak, according to Sam Kashner and Jennifer MacNair in The Bad and the Beautiful, “became obsessed with having her hair and makeup perfect before she could begin working, worried that she couldn’t live up to the media’s portrayal of her as a sex goddess.”
Which brings us to last night's Oscars.
As we age, the fat that plumps the skin and makes it glow inexorably begins to disintegrate. Because this is 2014, and we’re on our way to curing women of the worst thing that can happen to them— getting old — doctors can solve this terrible problem with injectable fillers.
So let’s say — just as a hypothetical for-instance — you are an 81-year-old star whose last movie was in 1991 and who hasn’t been to the Oscars in many a long year. Not that you were ever nominated for one in the first place; you were, after all, a sex symbol for most of your career. As the evening approaches, the anxiety sets in. Harsh lights, you think. High-definition cameras. And a public that remembers you chiefly as the ice goddess whose beauty once drove James Stewart to the brink of madness.
And even back then, when you were 25 years old, you worried constantly that no matter how you looked, it wasn’t good enough.
So a few weeks before the ceremony, you go to a doctor, and he says, “Relax honey. I have just the thing to make you fresh and dewy for the cameras.”
And you go to the Oscars, so nervous you clutch your fellow presenter’s hand. And the next day, you wake up to a bunch of cheap goddamn shots about your face.
Nice system we got here, isn’t it.
No wonder Kim Novak, like Tippi Hedren, Doris Day and Brigitte Bardot, has long said she’d much rather spend her time with animals.
(Background material on Novak is from The Bad and the Beautiful. Recommended.)