“Blondes make the best victims,” Alfred Hitchcock once observed. “They’re like virgin snow that shows up the bloody footprints.”
What better victim than Madeleine/Judy, the dual role in Hitchcock’s “Vertigo” (1958), played by Kim Novak in the performance of her career. “Vertigo,” with its haunting, Wagnerian score by Bernard Herrmann, will be performed by the Chicago Symphony Orchestra in a live-to-picture presentation on Aug. 15 at the Ravinia Festival. Novak will appear with film critic Michael Phillips in a pre-concert Q&A session.
Long retired from the screen, Novak was a guest of honor at the 2012 TCM Classic Film Festival in Hollywood, where she was interviewed by TCM host Robert Osborne in a session that was later broadcast on the cable channel. In his introduction for the TCM telecast, Osborne called this session “one of the favorites of any interview I’ve had the good fortune to be a part of.” Novak, who grew up in Chicago, was especially candid, revealing for the first time her struggle with bipolar disorder, and fighting back tears over memories of her lifelong insecurities: “All I ever wanted was to be loved.”
In “Vertigo,” Novak becomes the object of obsession for John “Scottie” Ferguson (James Stewart), a retired San Francisco police detective hired by a longtime friend to trail his possibly suicidal wife, Madeleine. As Scottie tracks Madeleine through the city’s winding streets, he falls completely in love, spiraling into a liebestod that leads to mutual destruction. Through his obsession, Scottie tries to recapture a lost love, only to lose it for eternity.
Though “Vertigo” is now regarded as Hitchcock’s masterpiece — it pushed “Citizen Kane” out of the No. 1 spot in the most recent Sight & Sound poll, taken in 2012 — at the center of its vortex is Novak’s fearless performance. No less than Martin Scorsese has hailed her portrayal, calling it “so brave and emotionally immediate.” Often dismissed as just a pretty face, Novak skillfully pulls off the complex transformation from the remote, beautiful cipher Madeleine to the vulnerable, pitiable Judy. By the time Novak as Judy pleads with Scottie, “Couldn’t you like me, just me, the way I am?” — she has achieved another transformation: switching our sympathies from the obsessed Scottie to his beleaguered obsession. “Vertigo” demonstrates what this often unappreciated actress could achieve under the right circumstances.
Now living in Oregon with her veterinarian husband of nearly 40 years and “a bunch of critters,” Novak admitted during her TCM interview that she “was never cut out to have a Hollywood life. It was not my kind of lifestyle.” When her mentor, Columbia Pictures chief Harry Cohn, died suddenly in 1958, she felt cast adrift in a studio system on the shoals, awash with teen-exploitation fare like “Gidget” and “Wild on the Beach.” After Cohn, that was often the kind of role that Novak would be offered. “I couldn’t play a beach girl. I needed something meaningful,” she said. “I was complicated. It wasn’t easy.”
More from Novak, as recorded during her “Live from the TCM Classic Film Festival” session.
On why fate led her to “Vertigo”:
I believe in destiny. I followed the path that was there for me. It was the important movie in my life. And I did have a feeling beforehand that was going to happen. Today I’m very proud of “Vertigo” because I do think it’s one of the best things I’ve ever done.
On her personal identification with the film’s heroines:
“Vertigo” expressed what I felt when I came to Hollywood. It was, “don’t tell us what you think — just stand there and be pretty.” I had own my feelings, my own thoughts. But they want to make you over completely. They do your hair and makeup, and it was always like I was fighting to show show some of my real self. When I was growing up, my mom would say, “don’t say anything — just be seen and not heard.” When I got to the studio, it was the same thing: “Just stand there, and we’ll do everything for you.”
They started right away trying to make me over. I had to think quick about how to stay me. I had keep my family name. I was willing to change my first name but I had to keep Novak. They wanted me to be Kit Marlowe. I had to have my real name. It was a fight all the way.
I related to the resentment of being made over and to the need of approval and the desire to be loved. I really identified with the story because to me it was saying, please see who I am. Fall in love with me, not a fantasy.
On working with Alfred Hitchcock:
He was so different than most other directors. Hitch would turn you free. He allowed you to interpret the character. When I would ask him for direction, he’d just say, “That’s why I hired you, my dear.” So he gave me the confidence and thus a sense of freedom. [Yet] he would control you indirectly — like that gray suit [the severely tailored suit that Scottie regards as Madeleine’s signature apparel]. He put his back up about that. I hated it, but as the character, I had to make that work. Then I finally realized that he wanted me to feel so uncomfortable, as Madeleine would. And I then knew it was so right.
Otto [Preminger, who directed her in “The Man With the Golden Arm”] allowed me to be myself, just like Hitchcock did. I really respected him, like Hitchcock. They allowed you to bring your own personality to the role — you brought the character.
On why her fate in “Vertigo” resonated with her personally:
I was used to conflict in the home. So having conflict on the set, with little approval, felt natural. Having Hitchcock as a boss was kind of like … home. It was a natural-enough environment, a familiar scenario. In my family, it felt natural to be insecure. There was a lot of mental illness in the family, especially my father [who was bipolar]. I inherited a lot of that. I didn’t know that growing up. Later, that’s why I liked playing the complicated roles like “Vertigo” and Madge in “Picnic.” I could understand the depression, the crown of thorns. That was easy to play. But my family didn’t understand. My dad walked out on “Vertigo.” He had a hard time watching it. And he could never say he loved me even until the day he died.
On James Stewart:
Jimmy Stewart is my favorite person of all time. He was just like your best friend, not like a movie star or actor. If I had a brother, I’d want him to be Jimmy Stewart. He was so comfortable and easygoing. You could talk to him, and so that it made so easy to work with him. I can’t imagine any nicer person. We seemed to be kindred spirits. We were both reactors rather than actors. We liked to play off one another. We never seemed to think about our lines. We were reacting off our feelings.
I know I’ll meet up with him someday. I’m sure I’m going to go there, too. I hope he’s the first person I see on the other side of the Pearly Gates.
On whether she regrets leaving Hollywood at the peak of her career:
Should I have stayed and fought for [better] films? I don’t know but ultimately that wasn’t me. What I always wanted to be was a realist, so I wasn’t just playing a character, it’s me. I give you myself, I give you my guts. I just don’t want to turn it on. I give you who the character is. Here it is. It’s who I am. I want to connect with you. … All I want is to be loved.
A version of this article appeared previously on Sounds and Stories, when the CSO presented “Vertigo” in 2014.