That’s a wrap for the third annual TCM Classic Film Festival, a cinematic love-in where film junkies the world over get to celebrate the best movies of classic Hollywood alongside the artists that helped create them. It’s a rare film festival that exists primarily to exhibit (in the grandest style possible) the great work of past decades, with little else on its mind but the pure love of movies and their makers. This year the festival scored a major coup by luring entrancing screen legend Kim Novak away from her blissful rural Oregon life for a trifecta of indelible events in the very heart of Hollywood. Miss Novak was on hand to introduce arguably the greatest work of cinematic art to date – Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo – to an eager and appreciative Grauman’s Chinese audience. Earlier that same day, Novak sat down with TCM’s Robert Osborne for a moving and insightful hour-long interview (for later broadcast on TCM), and the following morning enshrined her hand and footprints in the fresh cement of Grauman’s fabled courtyard.
Despite threats of rain, the festival got off to a sunny start on the red carpet outside of historic Grauman’s Chinese Theatre, where the world premiere 40th anniversary restoration of Bob Fosse’s Cabaret was set for the Opening Night Gala. Holders of the Fest’s premiere passes filed in to the glamorous sold-out screening, a mere velvet rope away from the film’s Oscar-winning stars, Liza Minnelli and Joel Grey. In fact, many of these enthusiastic TCM film lovers, having made their way to Hollywood from around the world for this unique experience, outdressed and outshone some of the stars on the red carpet. Sequins, fedoras, spats and boas were out in all their retro-chic glory as excited fans got to participate in the ultimate dress-up fantasy … their very own Grauman’s red carpet premiere. Still, even in a simple black pantsuit (accented by bright red gloves, earrings, and trailing headband), ‘divinely decadent’ daughter of Hollywood royalty Liza Minnelli was hard to upstage, arriving to a loud and raucous ovation.
The surprisingly diminutive Minnelli was in great spirits, vamping it up for the press with her red accessories and trademark style. Though never again scaling the cinematic heights of her Cabaret performance, her iconic turn as the Kit Kat Club’s Sally Bowles is etched forever in movie history, and was the perfect start to this film lover’s festival. Fosse’s staging of the Cabaret club numbers, combined with Minnelli’s singular interpretation (particularly her wounded, triumphant final song) made for an instant and ageless musical masterpiece. Rarely have a performer and role meshed so perfectly, and the same could be said for her co-star Joel Grey as the film’s cynical, lecherous Master of Ceremonies. It was wonderfully unnerving to see Grey’s piercing eyes on the giant poster, leering over the shoulders of the red carpet honorees as they made their way into the theater. Cabaret’s romantic lead Michael York was also on hand for the anniversary gala, as well as Joel Grey’s stylish dancing daughter Jennifer, who joined her father for an impromptu twirl on the carpet for appreciative photographers.
Among the many TCM favorites who returned this year for the festival, two happened to be co-stars of Liza Minnelli’s mother Judy Garland. Tiny Margaret O’Brien (Meet Me in St. Louis) and tinier still Mickey Rooney entered the courtyard not far apart. (In fact, Rooney, O’Brien and Garland all happened to be consecutive recipients of the now defunct ‘Juvenile’ Oscar.) Rooney, whose career dates back to the silent era, was an energetic spitfire at 91 … the irascible John McCain of the red carpet.
Not willing to be out-spitfired, Debbie Reynolds hammed it up for the gathered press, hiking her dress up over her knee, and having a good saucy time in general. Reynolds seemed to be everywhere during the festival weekend, not only introducing Singin’ in the Rain and How the West Was Won (one of only two true Cinerama feature films made, and screened with three-camera projection at the famed Cinerama dome), but also sitting for a taped interview with Robert Osborne in the Roosevelt Hotel lobby and supporting Kim Novak at her Grauman’s handprint ceremony.
Also present at last year’s An American in Paris gala opening, the stylish Patricia Ward Kelly (Gene’s widow) arrived to support her husband’s legacy (on the centenary of his birth) and to speak after the 60th anniversary screening of his masterpiece Singin’ in the Rain. 92 years young choreographer Marge Champion was also on hand in anticipation of that weekend’s restored Snow White screening, as back in 1937 she’d been paid $10 a day to be the animator’s dance model for Snow. Robert Wagner walked the carpet with daughter Katie in tow while Ileana Douglas, Tony Roberts, and Jerry Mathers (yes, another Hitchcock alum) all mingled en route to the opening night screening. Perplexingly, what seemed like the entire cast of TV’s Dallas also made their way up the red carpet, posing for any and all photos (ratings must be on life support, best I can figure). Two of the screen’s most enticing femmes fatale arrived arm in arm, yet largely unnoticed … noir classic Gun Crazy’s Peggy Cummings along with the first Bond girl, Eunice Gayson (Dr. No’s Sylvia Trench, a half-century ago).
Although Kim Novak was not to arrive until the following day, two of Hitchcock’s other coolly essential blondes represented the Master in fine form. North by Northwest’s Eva Marie Saint and The Birds’ Tippi Hedren (taking fashion honors for the second year running) both seem to love their esteemed status within the TCM family, and it’s a shame the lovely stars of three great Hitchcock films couldn’t have somehow been brought together for a classic moment in time.
In many ways this TCM Fest was the perfect antidote to the film that dominated the 2012 Oscar ceremony held directly next door to Grauman’s Chinese. Not only did the fest celebrate the woman who publicly led the charge against The Artist’s musical violations, but it also screened a magnificent restoration of another film pillaged by this year’s Best Picture, Singin’ in the Rain. While Gene Kelly and Stanley Donen’s masterpiece of color, music, humor, and dance garnered no Oscars back in 1952, it continues to impress sixty years on, wowing the packed Grauman’s house who applauded at the beginning and end of each exhilarating musical number. It seemed a missed opportunity when Singin’ in the Rain director Stanley Donen (who turned 88 during the fest) did not make an appearance at the screening of this, his greatest film. Donen, being honored at the festival with four separate presentations, spoke before screenings of his three films made with Audrey Hepburn, so it seemed odd that Singin’ in the Rain was the one overlooked. Perhaps he sensed that he might not be able to get a word in edgewise with that film’s firecracker of a star also scheduled to appear.
Escorted on stage by Robert Osborne with the giant Grauman’s Chinese screen towering overhead, Debbie Reynolds lost no time setting the evening’s comic tone by revving up the audience with her exuberantly bawdy wit. “Can you see on this side?” she enquired of a section of the audience. “Tough shit!” Who knew that America’s Sweetheart had the mouth of a sailor? Getting serious for a moment, Reynolds said that despite her lack of dance training, she simply buckled down and worked twice as hard in the five months of dance rehearsals needed to prepare for the role. “They took this little girl [she was seventeen at the time] and molded me into a really good dancer. I’m now a really good dancer. To this day I can still dance … I just tie the tits down and GO! ” Osborne looked a bit taken aback, but with the audience screaming their approval, there was no stopping Debbie. “Some people don’t say that particular word but I don’t see anything wrong,” she innocently demurred. “Because we’re lucky to have them, and especially if they last! So long as they don’t hit our knees!” After an admiring catcall for her gams from a worked-up audience member, Reynolds continued, “Look! Look! My tits look great too! Share and share alike … Turner Classic Movies!!” Realizing that any chance of further serious film discussion was fruitless, Osborne attempted to wrap things up, to Reynolds’ protestations. “He’s trying to get rid of me already! As soon as I undress, they all leave!”
Somewhat vanilla as her Kathy Selden performance in the film may be, there’s no denying Reynolds’ energy and infectious humor whenever she’s before a live crowd. It was actually refreshing to witness her utter irreverence before viewing the film that ranked tenth greatest of all time in the last Sight & Sound decade poll. The digital restoration and screening of Singin’ in the Rain was utter perfection, and I’ve never seen it look better with its vibrant colors literally popping off the giant screen. The film opens with a grand movie premiere at Grauman’s Chinese courtyard, and when the film segued into a shot of the (movie) audience inside the Chinese Theatre watching the latest Don Lockwood/Lina Lamont opus (just as we in the audience were watching Singin’ in the Rain), it was truly a surreal experience.
After the lights came up, Gene Kelly’s stylish widow Patricia took to the stage to speak (all too briefly) on the film, sharing numerous fascinating anecdotes of the film’s creation. She shot down the rumor that milk was used to brighten the rainwater in Kelly’s Singin’ in the Rain dance, but did mention that cinema’s most famous musical number alone took 1½ days to shoot, and that Gene was running a 103 degree temperature at the time. On his co-stars, Kelly thought that Jean Hagen was the glue that held the picture together, and felt that she was the only one who could’ve played the role of Lina Lamont. Additionally, he believed that Donald O’Connor was an unsung musical comedy hero, and fought hard for him for the role of Cosmo Brown. O’Connor’s brilliant Make ’em Laugh number (the one that garnered the loudest applause that night inside Grauman’s) evolved from O’Connor’s on-set antics (particularly with the dummy) as he’d attempt to make the crew laugh between takes. Cyd Charisse’s distinct hair bob in the film was patterned after that of Louise Brooks, whom Gene apparently had a terrific crush on. As for her tiny green mini she wears in the Broadway Melody ballet number, after on-set censors measured and okayed its height, Kelly circumvented this restriction by having two long slits cut into it to better show off Charisse’s mile-long legs. About his own dancing, Kelly thought that his Moses Supposes number with O’Connor was perhaps the best tap dancing he’d ever committed to film, and with his storied dance history that’s saying quite a lot. It would’ve been nice to listen to Patricia Kelly speak about the film for hours, but the festival operates on a tight schedule, and there’s always another upcoming screening to prepare for. Running up against the clock, she finished with the following lovely thought … “Gene always wanted to come back in a hundred years to see what people would be watching. Well, we’re at sixty with this one, and I don’t know, I have a hunch that this one might hang around.” It would be difficult to argue with such understatement.
After experiencing this truly wonderful film in the perfect setting (and hoping to further erase the slight and derivative current Best Picture winner from my memory), I concentrated much of my festival time viewing obscure films from the actual period in which both Singin’ in the Rain and The Artist were set. Like a time machine transporting one back over eight decades, the Roosevelt Hotel’s Blossom Room (site of the very first Academy Award ceremony in 1929) had been converted into Club TCM for the festival’s duration, an intimate room where filmmakers and historians can discuss the movies (as well as celebrate occasions such as TCM’s 18th birthday party this year). While displays such as Audrey Hepburn’s beaded Givenchy gown from Sabrina are definitely noteworthy, I always tend to be more fascinated by the changing colors of the room’s beautiful Art Deco ceiling. In fact, Deco design in film was one of this year’s festival themes, and Club TCM’s striking portrait of Joan Crawford nestled next to a palm in a cranberry velvet nook was all the encouragement I needed to make her 1928 Our Dancing Daughters my first film of the fest.
Filmed at the end of the Silent era, Our Dancing Daughters begins with a tight shot of Crawford’s Charleston-dancing feet, which then step into a satiny pair of scanties soon pulled up out of frame. Crawford’s flapper dresses and angular body made her one of the first stars to personify the Art Deco look in Hollywood, and she seizes this star-making role of a good-hearted party girl with wanton gusto. The film was introduced by co-star Anita Page’s daughter, who informed the audience that this was her mother’s favorite performance, likely because she’d always wanted to play the naughty girl on film. Still, it is Crawford that you can’t take your eyes off, and she blows everyone else off the screen (especially the drab male actors). I particularly loved her wild abandon during a frenzied table top party dance, which ends in what must surely be the first mosh pit dive committed to film. Page only comes into her own in the film’s final segment, where after an all-night bender she teeters at the top of an impossibly long marble staircase while three washerwomen scrub the floor at its base. The results are predictable, yet priceless (especially the downtrodden laborers’ reactions). The film’s great success prompted MGM to give Crawford the major star push, and both Page and Crawford would end up starring in Academy Award-winning Best Pictures within a few short years. According to her daughter, Page’s fan mail was second only to Garbo’s, including many by one particularly obsessed fan … Benito Mussolini. “Hey, at least it wasn’t Hitler!” cracked Page’s daughter, followed by a meek, “Sorry.” Later that night (and in fact every night of the fest) as I walked back to my Hollywood Hills domicile, I would raise a toast as I passed Joan Crawford’s old hilltop mansion, in tribute to her large expressive eyes and demented dancing feet.
Another festival rarity also from 1928 was Hungarian filmmaker Pal Fejos’ (mostly) silent Lonesome, a visually evocative romantic tale of two city workers who fall for each other during a weekend Coney Island celebration. Told in an imaginative cinematic style similar to The Crowd or Man With a Movie Camera, the film has been lovingly restored by the George Eastman House, and this 35mm print looked absolutely stunning. Less successful were the film’s three sequences made with synch sound after the fact, added by the studio in hopes of capitalizing on the new medium. Shades of The Singing/Dancing Cavalier indeed! It was quite instructive to be able to witness in a single film both the peaks and unfettered freedom of silent era artistry, as well as the stagebound unimaginativeness of the sound era soon to follow.
Greatly preferring the former, I particularly enjoyed the screening of Harold Lloyd’s 1924 Girl Shy, accompanied (and conducted) by Robert Israel and his orchestra beneath the giant Grauman’s Egyptian screen. Further helping to erase this year’s Oscar-winner from my mind, Israel’s delightful score for this 1924 charmer hit all the right notes. It was an added joy to have the film introduced by Lloyd’s granddaughter Susan, keeper of the Harold Lloyd flame, who related how much her grandfather loved hearing audiences laugh, and how he felt the sound of laughter was simply magic. She spoke on what a perfectionist Lloyd was, how when he’d watch one of his films late in life he would still take notes on how to tweak and improve certain bits. Great news for Lloyd fans was revealed as well, when his granddaughter informed us that thanks to TCM programmer Charlie Tavish’s prodding, seventeen of Harold’s early one-reelers will be taken from the vault and screened on TCM in the coming year.
One of the all-time great silent film stars, Clara Bow, turned up in a restoration of Oscar’s first Best Picture winner Wings, as well as a rare showing of 1932’s Call Her Savage, the film of which she was most proud. It had been screened almost exclusively up until now on 16mm prints, but the Museum of Modern Art has restored and struck a new 35mm preservation print of this rarity from an old nitrate copy located in Prague. Introduced by film historian and author David Stenn (Bombshell, Runnin’ Wild) as “Perhaps the strangest, most perverse pre-Code film of all,” the film was a huge comeback hit for Bow who had fled Hollywood in disgust the previous year. According to Stenn, Bow loved this movie, and was completely committed to her protofeminist role as a strong-willed, independent free thinker. The film was quite the scandal at the time, even including a scene in a Greenwich Village gay bar, the first such depiction in any American film.
But even more exciting than this rare film was the short clip that preceded it. Red Hair, one of the four lost silent films Bow made in 1928 at the height of her career, has long been considered the Holy Grail of Clara Bow films. Just two months prior to the festival, a pristine reel of the film was found in an East Coast attic, and serendipitously it contained the entire opening sequence – which included the only color footage of Bow that’s ever existed. It had been obtained by the Library of Congress, and we were the first audience to see this magical footage since 1928. Against a pale blue sky, the red-headed Bow playfully dangles a mackerel while a large pelican waits with anticipation behind her. Random and humorous, it looked like a Maxfield Parrish painting come to life, and was a great opening valentine to Clara Bow.
Seeing a number of films from the year in which movies awkwardly transitioned to sound, I was struck by how far the industry (particularly the screenwriting) had progressed in just one short decade, going from no dialogue at all to some of the wittiest committed to film. Howard Hawks’ delightful Bringing Up Baby (1938), considered by many the finest of all screwball comedies, seemed as fresh and funny as most anything filmed in the subsequent seventy-five years. It helped immensely that the film starred Katharine Hepburn and Cary Grant (in a character modeled after Harold Lloyd himself), at the very peak of their performing skills (they also shone together in the sublime Holiday that same year). Seeing Hawks’ essential comedy projected onto the large Egyptian screen was a thrill, exactly the happy cinematic experience that the TCM fest so uniquely embodies.
Two decades later Hawks filmed Rio Bravo, starring John Wayne, Dean Martin, Ricky Nelson, Walter Brennan, and the sultry Angie Dickinson, who was on hand at Grauman’s Chinese to introduce her classic film. Fairly green to the Hollywood movie scene at the time, Dickinson described the shoot as difficult and intimidating, but she was thankful for Hawks’ patience (even if he did eventually turn a cold shoulder to her). Her fondest memory was of working with the legendary John Wayne, whom she described as a “very tender man” with such a great presence. Their warm chemistry is apparent in the film, and she couldn’t get over how adorable he was in his Rio Bravo role. “It was his cute movie,” Dickinson laughed. As the film’s struggling alcoholic deputy, the underrated Dean Martin gave perhaps his most moving film performance, and soon the conversation inevitably turned to that other Rat Packer, Frank Sinatra, with whom Dickinson had intimate experience. “Frank was not a regular guy,” she effused, praising his power, confidence and selflessness. “The most exciting man I’ve ever been with,” she beamed. “Or near. Or …” before dissolving in embarrassed laughter. Rio Bravo holds up beautifully to this day, a shaggy dog western where not much action of note takes place. The quintet of actors rarely gave better performances, and they all brought such a laid-back, lived-in camaraderie to the piece. Walter Brennan as the crazed loon of a jailkeeper won the most laughs with his inimitable line readings, and the audience burst into applause at the end of the touching jailhouse duet crooned by Dean Martin and Ricky Nelson. This digital world premiere restoration breathed new life into the look of the film, and it was a delight to see it screened at the Chinese with its leading lady present.
Just prior to the Rio Bravo screening, producer Robert Evans made his way to the Grauman’s stage where he solemnly announced, “This is Sunday. This is sort of a gothic theatre, sort of like a church. I’d like you all now to … Pray for Rosemary’s Baby.” That indeed was one of the catchier taglines for any film, and helped propel Roman Polanski’s American debut into a monster worldwide hit (his only other American film being Chinatown, also produced by Evans and screened at the festival). Evans is a natural born storyteller, and entertained the audience with many fascinating on-set tales about the making of the paranoid horror masterpiece. While he had originally hoped to do a movie about skiing, of all things (due to his love of the sport), Polanski was eventually convinced by Evans to take the helm of Rosemary’s Baby, and it turned out to be his most successful film to date. Mia Farrow, in her first major starring role, was at the time married to Frank Sinatra (was everyone talking about Sinatra that Sunday?!), who had wanted Farrow to co-star in his upcoming film The Detective. He in fact threatened Farrow, demanding that she be finished with the Polanski film before the fast-approaching start of his movie. When Evans got word of this, he screened for Farrow an hour’s worth of Rosemary’s Baby footage, and insisted that she would win the Academy Award for her performance. Mia decided that despite the film running over schedule, she would indeed stick with Rosemary, and three days later Sinatra’s lawyer showed up on the set to serve her divorce papers. (Ironically, Ruth Gordon ended up winning an Oscar for the film, while Farrow’s brilliant star-making performance was not even nominated.) In a karmic quirk of fate, both Sinatra and Farrow’s films ended up opening on the same day in 1968, and Rosemary’s Baby became a huge hit while The Detective, well … not so much. Evans still stays in touch with Polanski (they’d spoken the previous day), and considers him to be “possibly the greatest director I have ever worked with.” Just before the lights dimmed in the hallowed auditorium and Evans shuffled off stage left, he set the mood by deeply intoning, “Close your eyes … and fantasize.”
The two diminutive titans of ’70s film comedy – Mel Brooks and Woody Allen – had two of their defining works featured at this year’s TCM Fest. Tony Roberts (who co-starred in six of Woody’s movies) flew in from New York to introduce Annie Hall, the final film screened at the festival. 1977’s Best Picture winner (yes, the Academy actually does get it right occasionally) remains as fresh and endearingly funny thirty-five years on, thanks to a brilliantly funny script and never-better ensemble, led by Woody Allen and Diane Keaton (in her iconic Oscar role). Roberts spoke admiringly of Allen’s working methods, and shared an anecdote about a scene that was eventually cut from the film. In it, Woody was filmed dribbling a basketball inside Madison Square Garden with the New York Knicks’ Earl ‘the Pearl’ Monroe, but for some reason, Woody just could not follow through and shoot the ball. When asked why not, Woody replied, “It would have been too wonderful.” Conversely, Roberts also told of a ‘surprise take’ that actually did find its way into the final cut. While visiting a Rodeo Drive boutique during the L.A. shoot, Roberts had stumbled upon an only-in-California white windbreaker which included an odd pull-down green visor. He shelled out the $350 for it, and decided he’d wear it in the scene where he retrieves Allen from prison. Unbeknownst to Woody, Tony then decided to pull down the hat/visor in the middle of the first take, and without missing a beat Woody ad-libbed his “Are we driving through plutonium?” line, followed by Roberts’ retort, “It keeps out the beta rays and you don’t get old.” Roberts ended up keeping the garment (he almost brought it along for the screening), and perhaps because of it, recently had a Stardust Memories moment of his own when a film buff in Central Park asked if he’d like to participate in the upcoming Apocalyptic Film Festival.
A few nights earlier, over in Sid Grauman’s other, even older, Egyptian Theatre, the great Mel Brooks held court before a packed screening of his classic Young Frankenstein, made, as he said, “Half for laughs, half as a James Whale tribute.” In fact, a few stalwart fest-goers admitted to having gone earlier in the day to see screenings of both Frankenstein and Son of Frankenstein to prepare for the night’s screening (you have to love TCM‘s programmers). Brooks recalled his first viewing of Frankenstein as a five-year-old boy, and how he was certain that the monster would climb through his fifth floor Brooklyn tenement window that night to “bite me, kill me, eat me.” After that failed to happen, Mel and his buddy would sneak back into the local cinema so many times to rewatch the film that Frankenstein soon became his “buddy.” The concept for the film came from Gene Wilder during breaks in the Blazing Saddles shoot, who eventually agreed to take the lead role on the condition that Brooks himself would not appear in the film. No hard feelings there, as Brooks and Wilder both picked up Oscar nominations for writing the screenplay, and to this day Mel feels that Gene Wilder’s performance is the most magnificent he’s ever given. In fact, the entire cast of great comedians were firing on all cylinders, and the film remains an atmospheric comic joy to this day.
Speaking of cinematic beauty, there has rarely been a movie star as ravishing on screen as Kim Novak, and it was a rare coup to entice her from her idyllic Oregon ranch to travel south and be honored at the festival. The festivities began with a one-on-one sit down interview with Robert Osborne, taped for future TCM broadcast at the intimate Avalon Hollywood Club. Having attended both Luise Rainer and Peter O’Toole’s interviews from the first two TCM fests, I must say that Novak’s emotionally honest soul searching was the most fascinating and revealing by far. And as the lone draft of her autobiography was sadly destroyed in a house fire some years back (a fatalist, she refused to start anew), this may well be the closest we ever get to discovering what made this glamorous, reclusive movie star tick.
Novak’s home life growing up in Chicago was a cold and troubled one. Her father suffered from undiagnosed mental illness, and was never able to give her the encouragement or approval that she craved. To his dying day he never told her that he loved her, but thankfully she was able to help fill this void through her artwork, her love of the visual arts. As someone who believes in Fate and following opportunities when they present themselves, she jumped at the chance to leave her hometown when offered a job modeling, of all things, refrigerators. When the tour brought her to San Francisco, she and a girlfriend decided they’d head down the coast to take a look at Hollywood, and within a very short time she had been discovered. During the screen test for what turned out to be her first starring role in the tight noir Pushover, director Richard Quine encouraged her to not act, but to just be herself, to be honest. In the screen test, Quine instructed her to simply talk about what she wanted from life, which as Novak touchingly related, felt so liberating, “I could be honest, that all I want is to be loved … I just want to be loved.”
Before she knew it, Harry Cohn at Paramount Pictures had signed her to an exclusive contract and her rise to the top of the industry had begun, eventually transforming her into the #1 Hollywood box-office star for three years running. She had become a product of the studio system, appreciated more for her surface beauty than for anything within, and yet she continued to fight to bring out her complicated inner truth on screen. In many ways her studio life echoed the coldness of her upbringing. “Everyone was saying just stand in your place, don’t say anything, don’t think anything … just be pretty. What a handicap that was because I had my own thoughts, I had feelings,” explained Novak. “My mother was always saying ‘Just don’t say anything’ and as soon as I got to the studio it was the same thing … we don’t want to know what you think or say, just stand there and be pretty.” Eventually the toll turned out to be too much, and she turned her back on the Hollywood life that had left her so unfulfilled, returning to that which had sustained her throughout … her love of painting, art, and animals. But before then she would leave her indelible mark on film history, thanks primarily to a director by the name of Alfred Hitchcock.
Novak was full of praise for the Master of Suspense who, like Otto Preminger before him, trusted the beguiling star to bring aspects of her own personality to the Vertigo performance, allowing her to interpret the dual roles of Madeleine and Judy as she best saw fit. Except in the case of the iconic grey suit and black heels that Madeleine sports before jumping into the bay, an outfit that Novak fought hard against wearing. When Hitchcock insisted, Novak acquiesced and used the constricting dress as motivation for her character. “And so I thought,” Novak explained, “of course I can make that work! I have to feel uncomfortable in my own skin as Madeleine. So I used it, I used the fact that I don’t want to be this character. He was so right, God bless him for that. Because I felt miserable in that grey suit!”
Admitting that Vertigo was “the most important movie in my life,” Novak stated that the film remains her personal favorite to this day. Particularly significant to her was the sequence where she’s made over by Jimmy Stewart’s character, in hopes of recreating the ideal woman of his dreams. “I felt so vulnerable in the scene where I come into the room … the scenes where he makes her over,” said Novak. “I identified with it so, because it was what was happening to me at the time. The whole thing with Harry Cohn and the studio [not to mention Hitchcock] trying to make me into somebody else, trying to change me, trying to manipulate me. And me holding on to the very end trying to maintain, and then giving in for wanting to be loved (by you), wanting to be loved by the world in a sense, wanting to be accepted, wanting to be loved by my parents.” Novak’s heartbreaking stream-of-consciousness continued, “I think that’s what hurt me the most, when my Mom and Dad went to see it. I called them and … my Dad had walked out of the movie. He just had … a hard time.”
Continuing with her frank introspection, Novak reflected on whether she had done the right thing by turning her back on Hollywood. “And that’s when I get sad because I think, was I supposed to stay around? Maybe I was, I don’t know. I have mixed bittersweet feelings about it … should I have stayed? Did I do the right thing by leaving?” she pondered, her voice breaking as she began to weep. “And I feel bad because knowing that the things I have are just so special … so is it selfish of me to have this wonderful life, and not to have given something that I know I have to give?” Her wounded vulnerability had the theater enraptured, and soon after Osborne wrapped up the emotional event with, “Well, we do appreciate you,” followed by loud sustained applause and shouts of “We love you, Kim.”
Later that evening Novak joined Robert Osborne inside Grauman’s Chinese to introduce Vertigo, and the packed 1100 seat theater erupted in thunderous applause for this long-wished-for moment. Despite some subpar digital projection issues (causing the film’s blacks to look more muddled grey), Hitchcock’s masterpiece was as enthralling as ever, its mysterious whirlpool of obsession drawing us ever downward into the souls of its doomed characters, unable to escape the repeating patterns in their circular dance of death. Novak’s haunting beauty, as she’s profiled against the vibrant red of Ernie’s or emerging from the green mists of memory inside the Empire, was searing, especially as experienced in her actual presence inside this movie cathedral.
The following morning brought sunshine (after the previous days’ torrential downpours), and out in the Grauman’s courtyard a crowd gathered to honor Miss Novak yet again. Kim’s best friend and manager Sue Cameron described Novak’s rare movie star qualities aptly as, “a luminosity that comes from inside, that registers on the screen, that goes right through your body. It’s Garbo … it’s Dietrich … it’s Novak.” (Most definitely the Novak seen just the night before in Vertigo.) Cameron then read from a letter sent by Nicole Kidman, who’d been unable to attend … “Your cinematic body of work speaks for yourself, but so does the other side of Kim Novak – the free spirit who left Hollywood to live atop the hills of Big Sur. Kim Novak the painter and llama farmer. You are an icon whose screen presence is unmatched, and yet you’ve lived your life with dignity and authenticity, and the courage to follow your heart wherever it takes you.”
Moments later Debbie Reynolds bounded to the stage, dispensed with such niceties and cut right to the chase. “We’re here today to honor one of the most beautiful ladies … She was smart enough to leave as a big star and give everybody the finger – ‘I’m outta here!’ So here’s the girl of our dreams … Kim Novak!” The casually elegant Novak climbed gracefully to the podium, beaming with happiness and gratitude. “This is not a typical thing for me to be standing here in Hollywood,” she began. “I must say when I left it was with very different feelings, and I come back now with a great appreciation of Hollywood. It’s been good to me and I must say I have good feelings, warm feelings about it. I was privileged to be in a lot of wonderful movies, Vertigo especially… What an honor it is to be here today, to be able to actually leave my mark with my hands and feet in cement, and to say that, yes, I too was part of all this. I live a wonderful life now, but I wouldn’t have traded the years I spent in this town because they were special. You guys are special, and I’m proud to have been a part of it.” Eager to get her hands into the wet cement, she ended with, “But boy I want to get on with it … I want to feel that gushy stuff!”
Holding the stylus with the familiarity of an artist, Novak (on bended knee) carefully inscribed her name before immortalizing her hands and feet in Grauman’s central courtyard. The obvious joy she showed in the moment, as the gathered friends and admirers applauded her life and achievements, had me thinking back to her feelings of sadness and self-doubt on her decision to leave Hollywood mid-career. Moments later, as Kim mingled in the courtyard speaking to her admirers, I found myself face-to-face with her, and instinctively wanted to reassure her about the wisdom of that decision, particularly as it had brought her such deep happiness and love. Reasoning that most performers are lucky to star in even one classic film in their career, the fact that she was an integral factor in creating what many feel is the greatest film of all time, should hopefully assuage any regrets she may have felt. I spoke with her of my belief that Sight & Sound’s once-a-decade tally of the world’s film scholars may by year’s end result in Vertigo dethroning Citizen Kane (reigning as #1 for half a century) for the overall greatest film of all time honor. She seemed genuinely surprised and flattered by the possibility, and I also told Miss Novak how crucial I felt her unique presence and creative contributions were to the film’s ultimate success. Extricating myself from the whirlpool in her beautiful green eyes was surprisingly difficult, and I felt as helpless as Jimmy Stewart’s Scottie under their bewitching spell. Moments such as these are definitely the stuff that dreams are made of, and all praise must go out to the film lovers at TCM for pulling off yet another amazing weekend of classic cinema. Robert Osborne announced on the fest’s final day that because of its third year of proven success, the festival will now be a permanent fixture here in the heart of Hollywood. As Gene Kelly once sang, what a glorious feeling indeed!
all photos by Steve Striegel, exclusively for ICS