Screened August 2009 on Columbia DVD in Brooklyn, NY

TSPDT rank #974  IMDb Wiki

As a card-carrying fan of Mad Men, at times I have to check my enthusiasm against the complaints of its detractors. One consistent criticism is that the series operates too much from the vantage of winking, condescending hindsight. I’ll have to save the full length of my counterargument for another time, but for now,  the skinny: this critique is based on a presumption that such a thing as an authentic historical viewpoint is fully possible, much less preferable to one whose subjective filters are made plain. For me, Mad Men is less about achieving verisimilitude than it is about the making and misleading of desire, and not just the desire among the show’s characters, but the desire of its audience for an idealized past. There’s a fascinating dynamic between the show and its audience as they collectively explore the nature of nostalgia. Our longing for a romanticized history runs parallel to the characters’ Pyrrhic pursuits of happiness.

Strangers When We Meet illuminates some of these issues concerning Mad Men.  Unlike Mad Men, it’s absent of any mention of historical events or other markers, other than what’s simply on screen: outfits, the make of cars, the products in supermarket aisles. The film boasts a wonderful realism that gives authenticity to its essentially sudsy suburban adultery plot. But that’s not a knock on Mad Men per se – again, the historical references in the show have everything to do with modulating its contemporary audience’s desire for the past as a function with our dissatisfaction with the present.  That fundamental discontent with what one has is also at the core of  Strangers When We Meet. What I find shocking about the film – and what has me wanting to board a time capsule to check my own take on period sensibilities – is that there’s no moral virtue to the affair between Kirk Douglas’ architect and Kim Novak’s housewife.  They’re basically horny and bored.  The electricity between them is not based not on mutual understanding but lust and desperation. The feeling of tragedy and loss that cascades over the ending isn’t over the failure of a true romance, but of a life built upon shifting values and ethereal desires, doomed never to be fulfilled.

Who knows how audiences at the time reacted to this (maybe after Picnic and Peyton Place the door to illicit suburbia had already been flung open?). But what elevates this film beyond potboiler status into the realm of cinema is Richard Quine’s attentiveness to these hollow, well-groomed spaces of affluence (it may be too easy to namecheck Antonioni’s L’Avventura, made the same year, and yet there it is… there’s a party sequence in this film that anticipates the one in Antonioni’s La Notte, made one year later).  They’re breeding grounds for bad behavior among a class that’s grown accustomed and entitled to getting what they want. They’re also the sites for some remarkable acting, each character treated with sensitivity to a shared plight, even as they become adversaries. Kirk Douglas gets to smash Walter Matthau’s jaw after catching him trying to cheat on his wife (Barbara Rush), but the horny neighbor is really the philosophical standard-bearer of the whole block. The only thing really separating the two are degrees of tact and consent with their targets.

They both come away relatively unscathed compared to the women; both Novak and Rush have devastating onscreen breakdowns inside their domestic prisons. Novak’s performance here is revelatory: whether it’s great acting, or the wear of her off-screen breakup with Quine seeping on screen, there’s a genuine tiredness in her eyes and shoulders that accentuates the tight-mouthed neuroses already familiar to Vertigo fans. One can almost be certain that Quine saw Novak through a Vertigo-shaped frame – he’s constantly boxing her profile in doorways and other suburban outlines like a magazine ad. She’s an image of perfection, searching for substance beneath a world of surfaces, including her own (notice how she scowls in true Betty Draper fashion when her lover’s young son calls her “pretty”).

In the end, the film maintains the same kind of ambivalence towards the objects of desire it holds up for audience consumption as Mad Men. Whether this amounts to perverse have-your-cake-and-eat-it indulgence-cum-social critique is up for argument. But I’ll take self-reflexive consumerism over the blind variety any day.

WOULD YOU LIKE TO KNOW MORE?

The following ballots were counted towards the placement of Strangers When We Meet among the 1,000 Greatest Films according to They Shoot Pictures, Don’t They?

Eduardo Torres-Dulce, Nickel Odeon (1997)
Jean-Loup Bourget, Positif (1991)
Jose Luis Guarner, Genre Favourites: Drama (1993)

PRODUCTION DETAILS

There had always been speculation about the love life of the notoriously press-shy Novak with rumors of past affairs with Columbia studio boss Harry Cohn, Sammy Davis, Jr. and Ram Trujillo. The romance with Quine, however, was now public knowledge but on the set it had different ramifications. In her earlier years in Hollywood Novak had been a reclusive, passive presence on movie sets such as Pal Joey (1957) but now she had gained more self-confidence and was flexing her power as one of Columbia’s biggest stars. According to biographer Peter Harry Brown in Kim Novak: Reluctant Goddess, “Her experience on Middle of the Night [1959] convinced her that she was an actress to be reckoned with. Unfortunately, she picked the wrong director (Quine) and the wrong star (Kirk Douglas) upon whom to vent her spleen. Technicians laughed behind their hands one afternoon when Kim seriously tried to give acting instructions to Douglas, who listened with a deadpan face. Off camera, he referred to her as the ‘broad Harry Cohn built.’ Within days, relations between the two stars became frosty and threatened to divide the company into armed camps. Kirk, usually a model of patience, began complaining about the time it took to photograph Novak from just the right angle, in just the proper light, and during just the right mood. The inference was that Quine was tilting the production heavily in favor of Kim.”

In his autobiography, The Ragman’s Son, Douglas recalled some of the difficulties in making Strangers When We Meet: “One morning, we were shooting a scene down at the beach. Obviously, Kim and Dick had been discussing the scene, and she was excited about a wonderful idea she had come up with. Apparently, Dick had agreed with her wholeheartedly. I listened to her argument, told her exactly why it was impossible to do the scene that way. She looked at Dick. He looked at me and said, ‘You know, Kim, he’s right.’ Kim went berserk. She ripped up the pages, started to make incoherent sounds, screamed, went nuts. It was impossible to shoot with her for the rest of the day. The next day we shot the scene the way it was written. We got through the picture, and I enjoyed working with her, although I do think that she convinced Richard to give the picture the wrong ending. The original ending in the book, very powerful, was that after our love affair had ended, Walter Matthau, who was playing a heavy, comes to pick her up in a car, and she decides what the hell, and goes off with him. Life goes on. Instead, she preferred to spurn him, pull her trench coat up around her neck, and walk off like Charlie Chaplin. I didn’t think that was the right ending, but those are the hazards of working with someone who’s romantically involved with the director.”

Douglas’s recollection of the original ending isn’t entirely accurate because HIS character is the one that calls off the affair and tries to make a go of it with his wife and family in Hawaii where an ambitious five-year project awaits him. The ending from Evan Hunter’s novel (he also wrote the screenplay) wouldn’t make much sense either since the Walter Matthau character was a boring lecher and completely inconceivable as the sort of man Maggie would gravitate toward to fulfill her emotional and sexual needs. The present ending of Strangers When We Meet actually rings true since none of the characters are able to escape their own private hells. So, Novak was right to sway Quine’s opinion on the film’s conclusion. Novak “would always refer to Strangers When We Meet as ‘that great lost weekend.’ (Several years later Kim reaped revenge on the actor in Boys’ Night Out [1962] by having James Garner chastise a smiling friend with the lines: ‘Stop showing off your teeth. Who do you think you are? Kirk Douglas?’).”

- Jeff Stafford, Turner Classic Movies

Quine had many dalliances with his actresses (including Judy Hollidayand Natalie Wood) before and after, but the affectionate way he still spoke about [Kim] Novak three decades later suggests she meant a bit more. In 1959, when they were shooting Strangers When We Meet around Bel Air and Malibu, their romance was so public that the brass at Columbia took the unusual decision to build a real house instead of a set. They bought — not leased — the plot in Bel Air where Kirk Douglas’ architect is building client Ernie Kovacs’ house in the movie. The studio planned to give the house to Quine and Novak as a wedding present, as Quine was to marry his star right after the shoot — the wrap party to end all wrap parties. But Novak panicked, bolted and left him at the altar, with only the key to happiness (he got the house).

Strangers, on the surface a mediocre potboiler by Evan Hunter about suburban life (with leering Walter Matthau as a neighbor and panicky wife Barbara Rush, we’re just a few blocks away from Peyton Place), is really about professional ambitions: The subplot involves Douglas pushing Kovacs — a best-selling author — to go for an unconventional house that would best suit who he is, just as he talks him into writing a “real novel” instead of his usual crowd-pleasing mush. Quine, a serious man mostly known as a maker of commercial pap, clearly identifies with both characters, and their scenes together are by far the best in the picture. Douglas kept seething throughout the production, feeling that Quine was keeping him at arm’s length, not only due to his infatuation with Novak, but also because of the clear complicity between Quine and Kovacs, who had worked together before. But Douglas’ frustration works for the picture and its sense of a man torn between love and responsibility, not only with regard to his family, but also his work.

There is a great scene in a Malibu restaurant, when Novak has to come up with lame excuses as to why she let herself be screwed by the supermarket bag boy (or the milkman — it’s that kind of film). You barely hear the bad lines; you just see the panic in her eyes, looking not at a furious and unforgiving Douglas sitting across from her, but beyond the camera at Quine — searching, maybe, for excuses to leave him. When she did leave, not quite at the end of the film, Quine was publicly humiliated. Some wag, in spite of the news, ordered champagne delivered to the set, which had to be returned. But the two former lovers remained friends, and even made one more film together, The Notorious Landlady, two years later.

“Kim knew she’d just lucked into stardom and was not well equipped for it,” Quine told me that day in 1987. “She knew she’d have to work at it, and she did. She was a bright and intelligent woman. She knew that for most people, she was still the gal who posed for those Thor-refrigerator ads.”

- Philippe Garnier, LA Weekly

Dear Old Hollywood has a wonderful tour of the Los Angeles locations for the film, revsited today, with photo comparisons:

To figure out this location the only thing I could match was the white pillars next to the stairs in the center of the photo. If you look in the below photo you can see the same white pillars and the stairs going up the building. If it wasn’t for that detail I don’t think I would have ever found this location!

HISTORICAL REVIEWS

Strangers When We Meet (Bryna-Quine; Columbia) discusses adultery, but instead of probing to the heart of the matter, it settles for pure tripe. Its outlook is expressed in the observation: “Anyplace you’ve got a housewife, you’ve got a potential mistress. We’re slobs in our pajamas—shaving at home—but next door we’re heroes.”

Inevitably, Douglas’ wife finds out about his infidelity, and he has to end his affair with Kim. That is all. No one is very much upset, Hollywood’s point being, it seems, that if you can’t take it with you, you can at least get away with it.

- Time, July 4 1960

CONTEMPORARY REVIEWS

Richard Quine’s Strangers When We Meet is another distinguished moment for the melodrama as it reaches a major key. An undervalued film, Strangers differs from the major accomplishments in the genre of Minnelli, Max Ophuls, and Douglas Sirk, all of whom brought to their work some degree of distanciation, either through elaborate camera technique or exaggerated mise-en-scene. Their point was usually to give the viewer some place from which to critically analyze a film without becoming removed entirely from emotional involvement. Quine’s film allows no such position, but instead uses a realist dramatic mode that, heightened in the manner of the then-popular expose – Confidential magazine is a representative if degraded example – is astonishing in its candid portrayal of the emptiness of marriage and postwar suburban life. The empathy allowed the spectator is disconcerting as the breadth of the film’s condemnation becomes clear.

- Barry Keith Grant, American Cinema of the 1960s. Rutgers University Press, 2008. Page 32

Made at a time when Eisenhowerian America was on the cusp of a major shift in social mores Richard Quine’s wonderful Cinemascope melodrama tells story of an adulterous relationship in the heartland of middle class suburbia as architect Larry Coe (Kirk Douglas) and housewife Maggie Gault (Kim Novak, who made 4 films with Quine), give way to their desire for each other. The carnality is alluded to with finesse, the main issue being, of course, the threat to their safe, apparently ideal lives and their resulting re-evaluation of their commitment/sense of obligation to it. With a strong script by Evan Hunter from his own novel, fine performances from Douglas and Novak and excellent direction from Quine who gives the characters’ moral quandaries great visual resonance this remains a compelling and affecting film. Although dramatically the film is weighted a little too much on Douglas’ struggle with himself with Novak’s character being largely assumed to have surrendered body and soul to the call of love, this is, nevertheless, a treat for lovers of 50s melodrama.

- Cinephilia

The sympathetic treatment of the lead characters is enhanced by director Richard Quine’s judicious use of the widescreen frame, setting most shots at a comfortable distance from the characters and cutting to close-ups only at key moments in the plot. Such remove creates the impression that Larry and Maggie are only barely comfortable in their environment, forever tempted by dissatisfaction. It also reinforces a mood of melancholy, a rueful conviction that fine belongings and lavish residences cannot compensate for emotional malnourishment.

- David Sanjek, PopMatters

I had heard from several smart critics that not only was this Quine’s best work, but also a great L.A. film. Both claims are true, and anyone fascinated by the way the real city has been used in movies will be endlessly absorbed in trying to identify the many locations captured by the great Charles B. Lang’s perceptive color and widescreen camerawork.

The neighborhood where the central characters live — where Douglas and Novak first see each other, dropping off their kids at a school bus stop — is unidentified, but would seem to be in the northeast section of Santa Monica or Brentwood. One sequence takes place in and outside the legendary Romanoff’s restaurant, and for those whose memories predate the Beverly Center, the lovers and their children have an encounter at the pony ride lot that long occupied the property.

Douglas’ character is an architect designing a modernist dwelling for Ernie Kovacs’ neurotic, womanizing author, and one watches the house go up in the mountains above Malibu as the film progresses. And then there is Malibu itself, where Douglas and Novak commence their tryst at the now-gone Albatross Hotel Restaurant with the assurance they’ll run into none of their friends way out there.

But the real issue here is the perception of a disconnect between the film’s familiar melodramatic format, which is what made sophisticates condescend to it half a century ago, and the absolute emotional and dramatic truth of every scene in the movie, which render it virtually undated after all the years (it’s also a pleasure to note that the film’s leads are still with us).

The operative cliche is that two attractive neighbors, both a bit itchy after some years of marriage, won’t be able to resist lighting a fire in their lives; the truth lies in the details of how the characters deal with their desires in a realistic context, and it’s here that a one-time alleged potboiler like “Strangers When We Meet” seems more credible and mature than a committed truth-teller such as “Revolutionary Road” or, for that matter, Mendes’ earlier “American Beauty.”

- Todd McCarthy, Variety

Like some of the heavier suburban melodramas of the 1950s (Peyton PlaceSome Came Running, anything directed by Douglas Sirk), director Richard Quine’s entry in the genre stands in stark contrast to the bedroom farces of the same period. Hollywood seemed to be walking a tightrope in the pre-sexual revolution America. Suburbia was either a repressed zone where the lid was about to be blown off middle-class hypocrisy, or it was an upwardly mobile, modern-day arcadia in which martini-fueled executive satyrs pursued nymphet housewives (not their own) for trysts at the supermarket, on the patio, or at the school bus stop. Actually, thanks to the novel and screenplay by Evan Hunter (The Birds), Quine finds some middle ground. This picture, shot in Panavision at a leisurely pace to fully capture the sunny bliss of the Los Angeles suburbs, makes the case that an extramarital affair might not be such a lark—yet it’s also not the end of the world. When episodes of “Mad Men” turn from Madison Avenue to the faraway suburbs, the series taps into a rich vein of human drama that this nearly forgotten film mined long ago.

- David Pelfrey, Black and White

FORMAL ANALYSIS

In the late 1950s unfaithful spouses were still classified as adulterers – of the “Thou Shall Not” kind. It wouldn’t be until the 1960s and 70s that the wanderers  could see themselves as “swingers” or “wife-swappers/husband hoppers.” The dominant look of Mid-Century modernist architecture — with all its open spaces and transparent glass walls – lent itself to this much more open kind of marriage and relationships. Thus, it’s quite fitting that the house designed by Larry Coe (Kirk Douglas) in STRANGERS WHEN WE MEET has an open-space interior but lots of Japanese-style wooden walls indoors and outdoors, which clearly keep the indoor sexual trysts with Maggie Gault (Kim Novak) hidden from view. The adulterous couple may be on a hillside out of reach of their neighbors, but they need to keep the relationship also out of sight. A decade later the window/walls of glass in MCM homes would serve as picture frames or even proscenium arches containing often very visible trysts or orgies. By the 1970s exhibitionism and voyeurism hooked up quite easily in the hills surrounding the Hollywood film industry. The dominance of Mid-Century modern architectural styles made it all the easier. Larry Coe’s home design in the film combined elements of East and West (Japan and California) in a way that ensured privacy while providing great views of the hillsides and valleys of Bel-Air. Throughout the film the house, actually being built during the film’s production, would become an important co-star to Douglas and Novak.

- Chale Nafus, The Austin Film Society

Richard Quine’s masterpiece Strangers When We Meet is the story of an adulterous relationship. Kirk Douglas is architect Larry Coe. Kim Novak is housewife Maggie Gault. The two are neighbors with children who attend school together. Early on, Quine films several scenes from Larry’s point-of-view, indicating the attraction he feels for Maggie. (This is particularly evident in the film’s very first scene, but it’s obvious also in a later scene where the two interact in a grocery store and, in a great tracking shot, the beautiful Maggie is revealed to the audience just as she is revealed to Larry.)

Later, Larry invites Maggie to come with him to survey a lot where he is about to build a house for a new client. Larry is standing next to his parked car as he speaks to Maggie opposite him. When Quine cuts to reverse shots of Maggie towards the end of the scene, it’s again obvious that we are seeing her as Larry perceives her; Novak is beautifully backlit in these shots. Maggie initially declines to join Larry, but eventually he is able to persuade her. “Change your mind,” he insists. In the shot in which he is seen saying that key line, Quine frames Larry with an intersection clearly visible behind him; despite the entire exchange taking place in the same location, this is the first time Quine has shot Larry in this way. Therefore, it is undeniably tempting to see the image of the road in metaphorical terms; depending upon Maggie’s answer, the two could be going down a path which will alter the courses of their lives greatly. Maggie agrees to go with Larry.

Another wonderful moment of visual metaphor comes when they meet at a seaside restaurant. It is storming outside and violent waves can be seen outside. Fittingly, Larry and Maggie acknowledge that they feel guilty about their adultery. And while neither one of them decides to end the relationship, the audience remains ill at ease with the morality of what they are doing. I believe this to be Quine’s intention. Think, for instance, of the moment when Maggie is thinking of Larry as she is doing the dishes. But her son yells, “Mom,” off-screen, asking for more milk. As Quine pulls back from a close-up of Maggie to a wide shot as she walks to the refrigerator, the audience is reminded palpably of her dual life.

Maggie’s deception of her husband is portrayed in hard-edged terms by Quine’s mise-en-scene. At one point, Maggie receives a call from Larry. She goes to answer it in the kitchen. The wide shot Quine selects for this moment includes both the kitchen to the right, the living room to the left in which Maggie’s husband can be seen sitting in an easy chair, and the wall which separates the two rooms—and, hence, Maggie from her husband. When the call is over, she says she was speaking to one of her girlfriends. (This shot, incidentally, brought to mind a similar one in Robert Mulligan’sClara’s Heart, a film which also features an unhappy married couple; the shot in Mulligan’s film has long been championed by critic and Mulligan scholar Fred Camper. The two shots are so similar that it’s hard for me to imagine that Mulligan was unaware of Quine’s film.) The conclusion of Strangers When We Meet, set partly in the fully constructed house which Larry has been building over the course of the film, ends not on a note of romance, but with two long shots: one of Larry standing atop the hill on which his grand house has been built; the other of Maggie driving away from the house.

- Peter Tonguette, The Film Journal

ABOUT THE COLUMBIA DVD

A shade hazy, but colors seem only slightly paled. I wish it was sharper, but I think it is acceptable. Novak seems to look great in every scene she is in, so it makes it all the harder to be critical. Black levels are very good, and as customary by Columbia now, minimal menus which I don’t mind. No extras excepting the “previews” (yet again). Overall no effort seems to have gone in but the stock from the vault is reasonably healthy.

- Gary W. Tooze, DVD Beaver

ABOUT RICHARD QUINE

IMDb Wiki

A prolific director of over thirty Hollywood features made between 1948 and 1979, Richard Quine’s (1920-1989) career achieved a sustained peak during the 1950s and 1960s while working at Columbia Pictures. A specialist in comedy who was instrumental in launching the careers of Kim Novak, Jack Lemmon and Blake Edwards, Quine has long been overshadowed by the other great directors of late studio era comedy: Billy Wilder, Frank Tashlin and Edwards himself. Only recently has Quine been rediscovered as a filmmaker of equal rank, an artist able to infuse studio comedy and melodrama with unexpected warmth and melancholy.

Born in Detroit in 1920, Quine was already acting in Hollywood and on Broadway by the mid-1930s. After serving in the Coast Guard during World War Two, he turned to directing and quickly secured a contract at Columbia, where he began by filming a string of comedy shorts before turning to a series of musicals. During the 1950s, Quine hit his stride with such hit comedies as The Solid Gold Cadillac (1956) and Bell, Book and Candle (1959), commercial success that continued well into the 1960s, after Quine had left Columbia.

Quine is perhaps best understood placed between two other celebrated directors of 1950s comedy: Billy Wilder and Frank Tashlin. More understated than Tashlin, Quine replaces Tashlin’s manic energy with understated charm. Although Quine shares a number of Wilder’s favorite actors, most notably Jack Lemmon, and often echoes Wilder’s striking visual realism, Quine’s films are less sour than Wilder’s. Where Wilder’s films deliver a jaundiced, biting critique of postwar America, Quine’s work thoughtfully examines the melancholy underside of American life, the drifting world of the so-called “lonely crowd.”

This unique combination of charm and melancholy, with an emphasis on the lonely heart of American society, reaches a poignant apex with Strangers When We Meet (1960), a melodrama of suburban adultery that is remarkably restrained for late Hollywood. While Quine’s later comedies grow more manic and cynical, his greatest work from the 1950s and 1960s—the focus of this series—reveal the talent of a consummate storyteller and restrained stylist.

- The Harvard Film Archive

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ABOUT KIRK DOUGLAS

IMDb Wiki

Kirk Douglas tribute and links page on ClassicMovies.org

The archetypal Hollywood movie star of the postwar era, Kirk Douglas built a career with he-man roles as soldiers, cowboys and assorted tough guys in over 80 films. His restless, raging creations earned him three Academy Award nominations for Best Actor and one Golden Globe win for his portrayal of Vincent van Gogh in “Lust for Life” (1956). But besides his lasting mark as a seething strong man with a superhero-like head of hair and the most famous dimpled chin this side of Shirley Temple, Douglas was a Tinseltown innovator and rebel. As one of the first A-listers to wrest further control of their career by founding an independent production company, Douglas also effectively ended the 1950s practice of blacklisting Hollywood talent suspected of communist ties when he insisted on crediting famed screenwriter Dalton Trumbo for his script adaptation of “Spartacus” (1960). Douglas maintained his position as a perennial favorite – often opposite fellow tough guy Burt Lancaster – in Westerns and World War II films until the early 1970s, when changing tastes edged the timeworn genres into the wings. He began a second career as a writer and focused on the philanthropic efforts of The Douglas Foundation, occasionally surfacing throughout the 1980s and 1990s to portray irrepressible old firecrackers in made-for-TV movies and the occasional feature.

- Turner Classic Movies

His screen persona has been characterized by resoluteness and ferocity, the typical ingredients of his steadfast, driven heroes, and occasionally the psychological foundation for his formidable and relentless villains. These variations on a theme of perseverance have pleased audiences who have come to know the Douglas face as a movie icon—eyes blazing with anger or resistance, teeth clenched in determination, a distinctive cleft in his firmly planted chin.

Bill Wine, updated by Audrey E. Kupferberg, Film Reference.com

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All my life, I have taken inventory at intervals. For example, when I became a movie actor and suddenly I had to deal with fame, money and playing so many roles, I lost myself. I said, “Who am I?” And I wrote my first book to deal with that, “The Ragman’s Son.”

Then the next thing that happened: I was in a helicopter crash. We crashed into a small plane with two young people who were killed instantly. I fell to the ground, and I said, “Why?” I tried to find God, so I wrote a book, “Climbing the Mountain.” Then the worst accident in my life happened with a tingling across my cheek, and then it developed into a stroke, and I couldn’t talk, and an actor who can’t talk is a big problem. But then I wrote the book “My Stroke of Luck” that helped me and helped a lot of other people. That was gratifying.

After that, here I was, 92 years old, impediment in my speech, and was reflecting on my life, and people thought I would write another book, and I said no, I’m going to do a one-man show. My friends laughed; they thought it was a joke, but I did it.

- Kirk Douglas, interviewed by Matthew Carey, CNN, April 9 2009

ABOUT KIM NOVAK

IMDb Wiki

KimNovak.org – Tribute site

Biographical Timeline by Glamour Girls of the Silver Screen

Kim Novak has often been disparaged as the last star manufactured by the studio system. In 1953, when Harry Cohn realized that Columbia’s reigning sex goddess, Rita Hayworth, was becoming too rebellious, he supposedly decided to “create” a replacement. He selected Novak and, having her groomed and promoted through a huge publicity campaign, cast her in several films meant to display her sex appeal. Cohn’s investment actually offered Novak an opportunity: she achieved stardom by developing an individualistic screen persona, and through her own accomplishments as an actress.

- Richard Lippe, Film Reference.com

It’s possible that the star we know as Kim Novak was partially the invention of Columbia Pictures—- conceived, as the Canadian critic Richard Lippe puts it, both as a rival/spinoff of Marilyn Monroe and as a replacement for the reigning but at that point aging Rita Hayworth. At least this was the favored cover story of Columbia studio head Harry Cohn, whom Timemagazine famously quoted in 1957 as saying, “If you wanna bring me your wife and your aunt, we’ll do the same for them.” It was also the treasured conceit of the American press at the time, which was all too eager to heap scorn on Novak for presuming to act–just as they were already gleefully deriding Monroe for presuming to think.

But Monroe, as we know today, was considerably smarter than most or all of the columnists who wrote about her. And Kim Novak–a major star if not a major actress–had something to offer that was a far cry from updated Hayworth or imitation Monroe (even if the latter was precisely what Columbia attempted to do with her in one of her first screen appearances, in the 1954 Judy Holliday vehicle Phffft!). In point of fact, Novak was more beautiful than either actress, yet paradoxically she was also less of a fantasy. Marilyn Monroe was plainly a comic-strip figure and a fantasy wish-fulfillment that simultaneously converted all the men in her orbit into both fathers and infants, whereas Hayworth apparently lived up to her own self-characterization: “Men go to bed with Gilda but they wake up with me.” But Novak was real from the get-go, and it’s tempting to think that her humble Midwestern origins had something to do with her reality.

- Jonathan Rosenbaum