Chatting With Kim Novak, Who Brings Vertigo to SF Symphony This Weekend

Alfred Hitchcock's Vertigo is now considered the great auteur's masterpiece, with some arguing that the 1958 romantic thriller is superior even to the groundbreaking and still terrifying Psycho. Vertigo was shot on location in a San Francisco which no longer exists — locales included Nob Hill, Telegraph Hill, the Palace of the Legion of Honor and underneath the Golden Gate Bridge. The city has never looked more ghostly than in the haunting tale of mystery and dual-identities that is Vertigo. 

On Friday and Saturday, Feb. 12-13, Vertigo will screen at Davies Symphony Hall at 8 p.m. This is Vertigo as you've never seen it before — the venerable San Francisco Symphony will perform Bernard Herrmann's haunting score along with the film. And, as the icing on the cake, screen legend Kim Novak will appear on the Davies stage at 7 p.m. for a pre-screening conversation with Steven Winn. 


Novak gave a hint of some of the stories she might be sharing at Davies when she generously granted a telephone interview to SF Weekly. Now 82 years old, Novak remains active as an artist, and is one of the last living participants of Hollywood's Golden Age. Though long retired from picture making, Novak is always happy to share her memories of Hitchcock, Frank Sinatra, Vertigo co-star Jimmy Stewart and many of the other luminaries who crossed her path. 

“Jimmy was my all-time favorite,” she said of Stewart. “He was just like he was on screen, warm and human, friendly and caring.” Novak added that she wished Stewart, who died at age 89 in 1997, could be here to witness all the accolades which are now heaped upon Vertigo — the film was not a success on its initial release. 

Though she doesn't feel quite as warm and fuzzy about Hitchcock, she retains a great deal of admiration for the director's artistry. She describes Hitchcock's personality as “dark”, which she said could be seen in his work.

“He never messed with your mind,” she said. “He allowed you the freedom to interpret the character — he was quite exacting about where you should stand and the rhythm of a scene, but not with your interpretation of the role. I appreciated that.” 

Novak said that she had heard the claims by Tippi Hedren, star of Hitchcock's The Birds and Marnie  that she was sexually harassed by Hitchcock during the making of those two films

“He was a strange character, but he never made a pass at me,” Novak recalled. “It seems I would have seen a little something of that, but I never saw it. I really admired him.”

A top box office star during the late 1950s, Novak recalled going out on a double date with two time co-star Frank Sinatra. The other couple were superstars Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall

It was a warm and brotherly Sinatra who greeted Novak on the set of the film The Man With the Golden Arm

“I was new in the business,” Novak said. “He was so warm and helpful — I had a cold and was out sick at one point. Frank sent over a whole box of Thomas Wolfe books — Wolfe became one of my favorite writers.”

The actress noted that it was a more rough-around-the-edges Sinatra with whom she worked on the musical Pal Joey two years later. She later realized that the change in Ol' Blue Eyes' personality were due to the role he was playing in the second film.

“Sometimes the part you play affects who you are,” she explained. “You can't go in and out of character — he was being the Pal Joey character. I realized afterward that you have to do that sometimes.” 

She also recalled how kind and generous Sinatra was to others in the industry throughout his life. “Frank never cared about being paid back for anything,” she said.

Novak said that she retained some fondness for Jeanne Eagels, a 1957 biopic in which she played the now largely forgotten Broadway and film superstar of the 1920s — Eagels' life and career were destroyed in a haze of booze and drugs. Though she admits that much of the Eagels film was bad melodrama, she thought her work was good, and that certain scenes were “exceptional”.

Novak permanently retired from acting in the early 1990s. These days she's happy to stay home and work on her art—her paintings have in fact achieved a great deal of acclaim. 

“Being an artist is what I originally wanted to do,” she said. “I studied at the Art Institute of Chicago — I find my true joy in painting.”

One of her works, an ode to Vertigo, will be on display at Davies this weekend. “Hitchcock influences my art,” she said. “I think there's a lot of mystery in my work. I also write poetry — many of my paintings have poems that go with them.”

No doubt Novak will discuss her art with this weekend's audiences. She hopes her fans will check out her personal website, where a number of her works can be seen.

And though she's no longer acting, Novak is excited about attending this very special Vertigo screening.

“I can't wait to hear the film with the symphony orchestra,” she said.

Vertigo with live score by the San Francisco Symphony and special guest Kim Novak, Friday and Saturday, Feb. 12-13, 8 p.m., at Davies Symphony Hall, 415-864-6000.


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