“I am so sick and tired of [film critic] Stanley Kauffmann knocking Kim Novak. She is a terrific-looking woman. Motion pictures are not, as Mr. Kauffmann seems to believe, transmogrified novels or' adjusted plays; these two art-forms have as little to do with motion pictures as they do with each other. Motion pictures are giant projections of religious imagery. To criticize Miss Novak because her tone of voice is always the same is as absurd as criticizing a Byzantine- ikon because it is static and badly drawn. If it were plastic and fluent, how could we give it our devotion? The actors and actresses which we movie-goers require are precisely those who, whether disguised as a sheik, a cowboy, an empress, a kooch-dancer, or what have you, remain triumphantly themselves. A large part of our aesthetic pleasure springs from the incongruity of, say, Kim Novak pretending to be somebody she is not.”— John Updike, letter to the editor, The New Republic, July 25, 1960, republished in the magazine’s May 27, 2013 issue
As soon as I saw this quote last year, I clipped it out. I had no intention of using it immediately, but I thought it might come in handy at some point—perhaps in writing about a movie made by Kim Novak, or, more likely, something related to John Updike. I’m not sure if this letter was ever used in one of his nonfiction collections, but it shows that the two-time Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist had a different hobby than what longtime readers might call to mind (golf, art). It also demonstrates his preoccupation with beauty and desire even to his dying day, in 2009.
Updike—evidently as besotted by Novak as J.D. Salinger was by Joan Caulfield—for all the silly invocations of religious iconography and “aesthetic pleasure,” is upholding Ralph Waldo Emerson's notion that “beauty is its own excuse for being.” It amused me that he would rush to the defense of the blond goddess of the Fifties and Sixties. But now, oddly enough, a half century later, I feel similarly moved, for different reasons.
The occasion, of course, was Ms. Novak’s appearance at the Academy Awards on Monday night.
Within minutes, it seemed, the social media were rife with comments about how she looked—with Donald Trump, of all people, tweeting that she should sue her plastic surgeon. What was lost on very few was the unhappy coincidence of Ms. Novak co-presenting (with Matthew McConnaughey) an award for an animated movie that turned out to be Frozen when she herself appeared unable to say or do anything. The general tenor of the comments was, “What happened to her?”
What struck me was not the change in appearance but her confusion and disorientation. My mind flashed back to two other Academy Award winners: octogenarian Mary Pickford, looking frail and even incoherent when presented a honorary Oscar in her Beverly Hills home in 1976, and Deborah Kerr, appearing fragile when accepting her own honorary Oscar in 1994. (Understandably so: that year, we learned later, she was diagnosed with Parkinson’s Disease.)
The one thing I could make out that Ms. Novak said was how happy she was to be back in Hollywood. But all that statement did was remind me of why the star of Vertigo, Bell, Book and Candle and Picnic stayed away so long in the first place.
For years, the actress would simply say that she abandoned Hollywood in the mid-Sixties—still in her early 30s, still at the height of her fame—because she did not want to end up like Marilyn Monroe. Then, a couple of years ago, she acknowledged that she has been afflicted with bipolar disorder.
Those criticizing the actress, then, might want to ask how they would look and what they would consequently do, at age 81, if they suffered such a disabling disease…if they had also experienced nerve damage from an equestrian accident eight years ago (as Gabrielle Levy of the Los Angeles Times noted in her blog post)…and if they had survived breast cancer in 2010. On top of all that, as the blogger “Self-Styled Siren” reminds us in an exceptionally persuasive defense, imagine if you were still suffering from insecurity bred by a studio boss (Columbia's famously abusive Harry Cohn), hostile critics, and relentless paparazzi in the early days of fame. Now remember: your major asset as an actress is your looks. Wouldn’t you have plastic surgery? (For the manifest unfairness of this whole wild critical overrreaction, see Slate's Amanda Hess, "It’s Horrible to Be an Old Woman in Hollywood, Kim Novak Edition.")
When she disclosed her battle with bipolar disorder, Ms. Novak said she sometimes regretted leaving Hollywood so soon. After the reaction sparked on Sunday night, I don’t think this sensitive woman will ever feel that way again.
The ones with regrets, though, should be those of us in the audience who want to place stars in a state of suspended animation forever. Some familiarity with the elderly in our own lives forces us to realize that they all look “great for their age”—until suddenly, irrevocably, inevitably, the day that they no longer do. Do we really expect entertainers to be exempt from the same inexorable laws of biology?
If we continue to insist on artificially preserved stars, we will be treated to spectacles far more grotesque than what we think we saw on Sunday. I’m thinking of something along the lines of “Fedora,” the novella from Thomas Tryon’s bestselling story collection from the Seventies, Crowned Heads, later adapted to film by one of Novak’s own directors, Billy Wilder, in 1979.
In it, a reclusive actress long gone from the screen, reminiscent of Garbo and Dietrich, is approached by a producer who hopes to lure this still-impressive beauty out of retirement. Fedora, of course, is nothing like what she seems. The subterfuges to which she resorts-- shades, gloves, veils, bandages, wide-brimmed hats, head scarfs, even an exchanged identity—might be astonishing, but surely nowhere near as grotesque as what an image-obsessed culture reduces objects of veneration not allowed to age in public.