September 23, 2009
My first introduction to Kim Novak came courtesy of Hayley Mills in The Trouble with Angels. I was probably about 8 or 9 years old when I first saw the movie, in which Hayley plays a teenaged brat sent off to Catholic school for reforming. On the bus to the school, she befriends Rachel Deverey (June Harding) who quickly becomes her awkward lackey. Their introduction goes something like this:
Rachel: What's your name?
Hayley: Kim Novak.
Rachel: I like it!
Hayley: So do I, but I'm stuck with Mary Clancy.
She then proceeds to try to trick the Sisters and Reverend Mother into thinking that her name is, in fact, Kim Novak-- and Rachel's name is really Fleur De Lis. It's the very first in a series of wild hare-brained schemes (or scathingly brilliant ideas) that make the movie so much fun. And until I started watching classic films in my teens, I thought that Kim Novak was simply a fictional name in one of my favorite Hayley Mills movies.
Now, of course, I know that she was a fantastic actress and a popular sex symbol in the 1950's and 60's. Looking over her relatively small filmography, I noticed that I've seen almost all of her movies already. Scrolling down the list, I kept saying, "oh! I loved that one!" and "oh! I forgot how much I like that one!" -- there is hardly one dud in the whole list. Two of these films I watched for the first time this week. And they are my new favorites of all her work.
First I watched Strangers When We Meet (1960) which really knocked me for a loop. It was an intense film about two married lovers -- falling for each other in an escape from their troubled suburban lives. The movie exemplified my feelings about suburban life, the entrapment, triviality and humdrum-ness of it all. I believe this one clip sums up the whole suburban experience, and perfectly shows how Kirk Douglas feels about the friviolous little things that he (and every suburban man) is supposed to care about.
In every single Kim Novak film, her beauty is constantly referenced over and over again. Someone is always telling her how beautiful she is, women are always gossiping about how they wish they were just as drop dead gorgeous. From the outside, she is always viewed as an object. But in each of these films, her outer beauty betrays a lonesome, damaged girl hiding underneath. This film was no exception-- despite her reputation as the prettiest wife on the block, she is really lonely and repressed. I'm not sure that any other actress of her era conveyed this confliction as well as Kim Novak did.
One thing I found very interesting about this film was its connection of the love affair to a house being built. Kirk Douglas plays a daring architect-- constantly struggling to create something unique and offbeat. He gets his chance to design such a house when writer Ernie Kovaks commissions him to build his new home. Kirk & Kim's first outing together takes place on the lot where the house will be built. As their love affair grows, the house takes shape. By the end, the house is completely built and their love for each other is cemented.
Another theme in the movie was familiarity. Who is a stranger, and who do we actually know? Your next-door neighbor that you have over for dinner parties could actually be an attacker. A fellow PTA member could be dating your husband. A stranger that you meet in the grocery store could turn out to be the love of your life. Even your own spouse could be a complete stranger.
The next film I watched was Middle of the Night. I think that Strangers When We Meet belonged to Kim Novak, but Middle of the Night was definitely Fredric March's movie. I know I say this a lot, but his character will totally break your heart in pieces. (I'm a little peeved that Fredric March was not nominated for an Oscar for this role. He really, really deserved it.)
If you're a fan of Marty (and really, who isn't?) you'll love this film. It has the same director (Delbert Mann) the same screenwriter (Paddy Chayefsky) and the same feel. Fredric March plays a 56 year old widower, surrounded by men who seem to always be talking of death and sickness or sex and young floozies. He's lonely, depressed, and tired of always spending his nights visiting his daughter or hanging out with his spinster sister.
Desperate, he reaches out to a woman in her 40's who turned down his marriage proposal a few months earlier. The scene is set up in his empty bedroom. He sits on the side of the bed, and calls her on the phone. He looks hesitant, yet eager. "How about we go out for dinner, maybe see a show?" -- then he realizes that she doesn't seem very friendly. He asks why. She's married. The hurt on his face is heart wrenching.
Later that night, he goes to pick up some papers from his secretary (Kim Novak) at the apartment that she shares with her mother. Her husband just divorced her, and she's a complete wreck. Fredric March stays for a while, listens to her problems and cheers her up. The next time he sees her at work, he realizes he's developed a bit of a crush on her -- but he's torn between asking her out or leaving her alone because he is more than twice her age, and she's younger than his own daughter!
This movie just would not have worked if the boss had been played by someone like Cary Grant -- Fredric March was not a dashing older man. He has wrinkles, a belly, a receding hairline, and a strange habit of gnashing his teeth that really made him seem 70, not 56. It's not a fairy tale May-December romance. March plays a real life older man, warts and all.
So when March finally gets up the nerve (pacing back and forth beforehand, you can practically SEE the butterflies in his stomach) to ask Kim out on a date, you can understand why she doesn't look especially thrilled. As they go out on more dates, March turns into an exuberant little boy. He is genuinely giddy everytime he's with Kim Novak.
In the end, the movie is about the definition of love. What is love? Is it two people falling head over heels for each other? Yes -- but it can also be an older man finding happiness and a second youth with a disconsolate love-starved woman. It can be two people feeling comfortable together, and helping each other get through the quiet lonliness in the middle of the night.