Another Comment on Kim Novak at the Oscars

The more I think about Kim Novak’s appearance as a presenter at the Oscars last night and the fact that she did not receive a standing ovation, the more I think just how appropriate it is to have a discussion about what that signifies. How do the bright, shining stars of Hollywood determine who among them is a legend and who is not?

I guess it’s debatable whether Kim Novak is actually a “legend” (unlike another presenter, Sidney Poitier, who definitely got people out of their seats). She was never nominated for any Academy Awards during her career. There is no question, however, that in her heyday she worked with many of the biggest names in the business. Novak’s starring role in Hitchcock’s Vertigo (1958) is how most people best remember her, but she worked with many other talented directors and leading men as well. Think for a moment of some of those highly-regarded directors: Richard Quine, Mark Robson, Joshua Logan, Otto Preminger, George Sidney, Delbert Mann, Billy Wilder, Terence Young, Robert Aldrich, Guy Hamilton. And then there are some of those memorable leading men, besides James Stewart of Vertigo and Bell, Book and Candle: Fred MacMurray, William Holden, Frank Sinatra, Tyrone Power, Fredric March, Kirk Douglas, Jack Lemmon, James Garner, Laurence Harvey and Dean Martin, to name only ten. Does anyone remember when Sight & Sound crowned Vertigo the greatest movie of all time? Well, for all we know that might not have happened if Hitchcock had cast a different actress.

The complicating factor in the public’s reactions to Novak is in the knowledge that she was once a sex symbol. It seems that perceptions are harsher and more judgmental when they are assessing someone who was once considered beautiful. (This remark about Novak by some young nobody is especially mean.) Not even having Academy Awards can alter this; the blogosphere was also snarky towards presenter Goldie Hawn (1970’s Best Supporting Actress winner for Cactus Flower), who was a bona fide star from the early 1970s to the early 2000s and who was certainly considered a sex symbol for many years. Even with all her success, the evident plastic surgery or Botox or whatever it is that Hawn has had done was prime fodder for the online critics. Getting back to Novak, the online reactions remind me of how the Internet immediately laughed at Jacqueline Bisset’s Golden Globes speech. Whether or not people were aware of Bisset’s fame and beauty from the late 60s to the late 80s (and her career hasn’t slowed down to this day), they were only reacting to the “uncomfortable” awkwardness in her genuine surprise at winning. Maybe if you had waited nearly fifty years to win a major award, you’d be shocked and say weird things too.

From what I gather, Kim Novak chose to leave Hollywood because she was frustrated with being seen only as a sex symbol, which was undoubtedly the main reason why she got many or most of the roles that she did, and after a while she was probably not considered a sex symbol anymore anyway. It was better for her to have bowed out graciously when she did, acting only occasionally between the early 70s and early 90s. But even at last night’s Oscars, when Hollywood went out of its way to pay tribute to just about every relic from its golden days, the fickle crowd was selective enough not to care that Kim Novak was onstage. If Novak was unsure of herself back in the 1950s, I can only imagine that it was a little frightening to appear at the Oscars as an 81-year-old woman. Can you really blame a female veteran of an appearance-driven industry for taking some injections?

As the blog Dlisted’s comments noted, echoing disappointment over the Oscar audience’s lack of reverence for one of their own: “This is what happens when people are thought to value and be appreciated based on only their looks … I wouldn’t even want to know how Marilyn Monroe would have looked if she were alive today … Do you think she would have received a standing ovation? Or would the Bieber crowd not recognize her either?”

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