Thursday, May 22, 2014

Loving Kim Novak

I get mesmerized by Hitchcock's Vertigo, a tale of love, obsession, deception and duplicity.  I do believe it's the first Hitchcock film to use animation in its storyline.  That comes in the very Freudian dream sequence that the emotionally and physically injured detective has.  He's played by James Stewart.
I have paid to see that classic several times on big screens at revival theaters in New York City and San Francisco.  I've rented the DVD a number of times.  One of these days, I'll buy my own copy.  There were famous actors who got Oscar nominations in their film careers.  But they did not get Oscar nominations for their Hitchcock performances which, to me, showed them at an artistic peak.  Examples are Ingrid Bergman and Cary Grant in Notorious, Anthony Perkins in Psycho, Thelma Ritter in Rear Window, Doris Day in The Man Who Knew Too Much...and James Stewart in Vertigo.  His John "Scotty" Ferguson was tough yet vulnerable.  Rarely had Stewart played a character so  erotically charged as this man.  True, there are lapses in logic in Vertigo's a movie!  We don't go to movies to see real life played out as it truly is.  We lose ourselves in the emotions and drama -- and this movie has plenty of both.  Stewart brings out the working class humanness of the detective's romantic obsession.
Kim Novak became one of the most famous "Hitchcock blondes" as the object of desire in Vertigo.
I've written about Vertigo visual details previously on this blog site.  Hitchcock's details -- like the flower motif -- fascinate me in this film.  I saw a long clip from Vertigo last night and another detail hit me.  A certain visual we see in the beginning, when Kim Novak makes a dazzling first appearance as Madeleine, is rhymed later when we see Kim Novak as Judy.  If you have not seen the movie, I'll keep from spoiling any plot discoveries for you.  If you have seen it, you know what I'm talking about.  When Scotty is on assignment, he's at a posh San Francisco restaurant sitting at the bar, waiting to get a glimpse of a client's mysterious wife.  Scotty is taken with her beauty.  The couple leaves the restaurant and walks post a full-length mirror to the door.
The red interior, the background when Scotty first sees her, appears in his nightmare sequence as you can see from the first photo posted in this piece.  Scotty's dream is surreal and scary, yet clues are hidden in his subconscious.  Later, he meets Judy.  If she was blonde, she'd look just like Madeleine.  If this act of the film was a TV reality show, it would be called "When Good Beauty Makeovers Go Bad."
As in the restaurant scene where Scotty keeps his private eye on the couple leaving, there's a mirror.  In the dress shop with Judy, there's also a mirror.  In Hitchcock's drama, one lovely female will have two identities to each man at the mirror, each man reflected in it with her.  There is a duality about her character.  I absolutely love those two meaningful shots.

Kim Novak was a top Hollywood blonde in the 1950s, just like Marilyn Monroe was.  Monroe was more the international sex symbol superstar, a masterful screen comedienne with a gift for musical comedy.  Novak was more introspective in attitude, a cooler, poised, more neurotic young blonde who was a better fit for dramas like Jeanne Eagels, Middle of the Night, The Man with the Golden Arm, Picnic and Vertigo.  Although, she did star in entertaining, sophisticated light comedies -- Bell, Book and Candle with James Stewart, Boys' Night Out with James Garner and she starred in the musical Pal Joey with Frank Sinatra and Rita Hayworth.

Marilyn Monroe died during production of Something's Got To Give.  George Cukor was directing her in a remake of the 1940 Irene Dunne and Cary Grant comedy, My Favorite Wife.

Cyd Charisse was in the role of the tiresome new wife, the role Gail Patrick played in the original.
Dean Martin was following Cary Grant in the perplexed husband role.

After Monroe's untimely death, the project was repackaged, recast and retitled.  It became the Doris Day and James Garner hit, Move Over, Darling.  Monroe's death also changed Billy Wilder's plans.  He was writing a new comedy with her in mind for the female lead.  The comedy was Kiss Me, Stupid.  Kim Novak took on the role, opposite Dean Martin.  It wasn't one of Wilder's critical hits but I feel it rates a look.  Kim Novak gave the warmest, most surprising and funniest performance of her screen career in Billy Wilder's Kiss Me, Stupid.  She played Polly the Pistol, the Nevada cocktail waitress and occasional hooker who longs for the life of an average housewife.  I didn't see this movie until the 1980s when I rented it on VHS.  I could not believe I was watching the same actress from Vertigo.  She was so ditzy, so different, so endearing.  Her look and her sound were new.  You should make this a half of a double feature one weekend and watch it right after Vertigo.

I was a Catholic youngster in L.A. when this movie was in production, when it was released and when Catholics were forbidden to see it.  Seriously.  Peter Sellers was playing the hyper and suspicious piano teacher husband, Orville, who's half of a struggling songwriting team in Nevada.  He had a mild heart attack and had to withdraw from the project.  He was replaced by Ray Walston, seen in Wilder's The Apartment.  Dean Martin, as himself, spoofs his own Rat Pack hipster image -- and he's a hoot.  Kiss Me, Stupid also lampoons Kubrick's Lolita.  We see a sign for a town called "Climax" and there's a phallic-shaped cactus plant in a front yard.

Swinger Dino has finished a sold-out engagement.  Now he wants a few drinks and some horizontal recreation.
But he's stuck in a non-swinger town.  The teacher/songwriter's loving wife is a huge Dino fan.  Her Dino crush makes her husband jealous.
Orville''s songwriting partner, Barney, hatches a scheme.  If they can get hipster Dino to hear one of their songs -- and if he likes and records it -- they'll be made.  If they can coax Orville's wife to leave for the night, they can get Polly the Pistol to pretend she's Orville's wife.  Then they can invite Dino over for dinner, play him their music -- and let him play with "Mrs. Spooner."  Polly goes along with Barney's plan because she's tight on cash and could use the extra money.
Dino comes over, Polly pretends to be Mrs. Orville Spooner and Dino tries to get his hands on her when Orville isn't looking.
Like in Vertigo, there's a duality to Kim Novak's character in Kiss Me, Stupid and a marriage is involved.  And sex.  While Polly plays her part, she discovers something.  She really likes having a wedding ring on her finger.
She likes doing those ordinary domestic things, like making dinner for her husband and holding his hand.  There's broad burlesque humor in this sex satire and that's mostly what critics, at the time, didn't like.  Who really hated it?  The Catholic Church.  I remember my parents talking about this.  A Catholic newspaper called The Tidings had movie listings with ratings for Catholic moviegoers.

Billy Wilder's Kiss Me, Stupid was rated "Condemned" by the Catholic Legion of Decency.  Catholic moviegoers were told that they would be committing a major sin if they went to see it.  I kid you not.  Catholics were essentially told that if they saw this sexy comedy and, afterwards, died of a sudden heart attack before confessing to a priest that they'd seen Kiss Me, Stupid, their souls would go directly below.  You could be in Eternal Damnation sitting on a hot bench right next to high-ranking Nazi officers simply because you saw Billy Wilder's Kiss Me, Stupid.

All the suggestiveness and the risqué sight gags seem tame today in comparison to what we've heard on a typical episode of Two and a Half Men, the prime time CBS sitcom that's been on for over 10 years.  I think that Vatican veto on Wilder's movie came because Kiss Me, Stupid has a happy ending.  No one got hurt.  Fantasies came true.  Love prevailed.  If Polly the Pistol had been killed by a drunk driver as drove back to work at the cocktail lounge, the church would've been satisfied.  The "woman of loose morals" would've been punished.  But that didn't happen.  She was treated with humanity.  She was treated sweetly.  That's the way she treated Orville.

Is Kiss Me, Stupid in a class with Wilder's The Apartment, Some Like It Hot or the first Hollywood film he directed, The Major and the Minor starring Ginger Rogers?  No.  But it's not totally bad.  I've seen worse.  One example is Need For Speed, a movie I paid to see this year so I could review it on TV.  I'd rather keep a dental appointment during a New York City snowstorm than sit through that clunker again.  I believe that the Catholic Legion of Decency action plus the critics' displeasure kept folks from seeing Kim Novak stretch herself as an actress and show a talent for screwball comedy that was never tapped during her Columbia Pictures time in the 1950s.  Never before was she as outgoing, kooky and lovable in a role as she was for Wilder.  Novak created a nice character.  Polly the Pistol may not be the brightest bulb in the lamp, but she is honest.  And kind.  There's a radiance about Polly when she's wearing a simple dress and acting like a housewife in the kitchen.  And, I'll admit it, my heart is touched watching Polly when Orville sits at the piano, plays and sings the tender Gershwin tune, "All The Livelong Day."  Novak and Walston play that scene beautifully.  Polly loved her temporary time as a housewife.

When I've heard people criticize Kiss Me, Stupid in conversation, I've never truly felt that they were speaking from an honest place. I always had the feeling they were repeating reviews they'd read by noted critics and wanted to come off as urbane instead of forming their own opinions and independent observations.

I saw actor Laurence Fishburne in a special TCM conversation with film critic Elvis Mitchell.  Fishburne praised Dean Martin's performance in Kiss Me, Stupid.  How refreshing it was finally to hear another viewpoint about something relative to that Wilder comedy.  He spoke from an honest place.  Given that Kiss Me, Stupid was a scandalous comedy for its time, I'm surprised it hasn't been remade.  Maybe it's just as well is hasn't been redone.  A Kiss Me, Stupid remake would probably cast Vince Vaughn in the Dean Martin role.  Vince Vaughn as Vince Vaughn from Swingers.  Heaven only knows how today's Hollywood would re-imagine the Ray Walston and Kim Novak characters.
I'll stick with the original, imperfect as it is.  Give Billy Wilder's Kiss Me, Stupid a look -- after you see Kim in Hitchcock's Vertigo.

1 comment:

  1. Mr. Rivers, thanks so much for integrating such wonderfully wise words about our Dino into this Kim Novak focused post. Never was, never will be anyone as cool as the King of Cool...oh, to return the days when Dino walked the earth. Know that your reflections are being shared this day at ilovedinomartin.


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