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On the Academy Awards and Kim Novak's Face

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by Sam Adams
March 3, 2014 4:25 PM
17 Comments
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Kim Novak appeared on the Academy Awards broadcast last night. It went like this:

The amazing thing about Novak's appearance, in every sense, is that some people thought one thing about it, and others thought something else. Here's E Online with the scoop. And USA Today. And Defamer. The Washington Post helpfully divided the campers into snark vs. sympathizers.

Now, it is true that some people poked fun at Novak's swollen and inert face, and some others responded by accusing them of a lack of sensitivity and respect. (Some deeply confused types did a little of both.) But as far as I can determine, no one went beyond the tweets and counter-tweets to try and hash out the complicated issues in play.

No one, that is, except Self-Styled Siren Farran Smith Nehme, who posted an essay called "Let's Talk About Kim Novak" to her blog this morning:

So let’s say -- just as a hypothetical for-instance -- you are an 81-year-old star whose last movie was in 1991 and who hasn’t been to the Oscars in many a long year. Not that you were ever nominated for one in the first place; you were, after all, a sex symbol for most of your career. As the evening approaches, the anxiety sets in. Harsh lights, you think. High-definition cameras. And a public that remembers you chiefly as the ice goddess whose beauty once drove James Stewart to the brink of madness.

And even back then, when you were 25 years old, you worried constantly that no matter how you looked, it wasn't good enough.

So a few weeks before the ceremony, you go to a doctor, and he says, "Relax honey. I have just the thing to make you fresh and dewy for the cameras."

And you go to the Oscars, so nervous you clutch your fellow presenter's hand. And the next day, you wake up to a bunch of cheap goddamn shots about your face. 

Nice system we got here, isn't it.

Watching Novak onstage was a deeply unsettling experience for me, not only because of her un-natural appearance but for her palpable anxiety; her co-presenter, Matthew McConaughey, rubbed the small of her back to try and calm her nerves, but she still seemed barely capable of stringing two sentences together. For better or worse -- or better and worse -- social media captures in-the-moment responses; it's not surprising that many people reacted to Novak with discomfort, and some channeled that discomfort into humor, not all of which is simple mockery. It's easy to be part of a pile-on without realizing it until it's too late. 

But while the results are deeply sad for Novak either way, there are, if not bigger, at least other things at stake. In the comments to her post, Nehme writes that if actresses get "naturally old and abandon diets, like June Squibb, they're 'letting themselves go.' If they work too hard at staying beautiful, like Goldie Hawn and Kim Novak, they're silly cows who can't perceive how ridiculous they look."

I can't find any references to Squibb "letting herself go," except this, from "Mommie Dearest"'s Rutanya Alda on her erstwhile co-star, Faye Dunaway: 

At the time, Faye said she would never have a facelift and of course she's had more than one, her face is so stretched, with those lips. I have a hard time looking at her now because it’s so distorted to me. If she'd just let herself go, she would have been a beautiful older woman and could have played parts like June Squibb in "Nebraska."

It's troubling when women are judged by their appearances -- I'd say "unfair," but the idea that a professional actor would ever not be judged by her (or his) outward appearance is a hard one to envision. But it is fair to judge, or at least evaluate, the decisions they make, and there is some social benefit in establishing that we don't expect or desire women to look like shellacked and inflated versions of their younger selves. Ideally, of course, we'd do it in a empathetic fashion, one that holds the system as if not more accountable than the individuals who act within it. One thing, at least, is certain: Lazily breaking the debate into opposing camps without even an attempt at analysis does no one any good.

Update: Slate's Amanda Hess weighs in as well:

When it comes down to it, we don't actually want Hollywood leading ladies to look their age. Better are middle-aged stars like Sandra Bullock, who is not just celebrated as gorgeous at 49, but especially gorgeous because she doesn’t "look" 49. Better still to just be 23. Jennifer Lawrence is Hollywood's current girl crush, and she's got a bright career ahead of her -- as long as she maintains her youthful looks until her deathbed, or else picks the appropriate moment to crawl into a hole to wait to die.

And Nehme points to this 2013 Ruthe Stein profile of Novak in the San Francisco Chronicle, where she's not only candid about having had plastic surgery, but about being displeased by the results:

She wanted a fresh look, but "I didn't want to do anything major." A doctor suggested fat injections to add fullness to her face. "That was absolutely crazy when I think about it now. You spend all your time trying to get rid of fat. I love the hollow kind of cheekbone look," Novak says. "So why did I do it? I trusted somebody doing what I thought they knew how to do best. I should have known better, but what do you do? We do some stupid things in our lives. I mean you pay to look worse? You pay money for that?"

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17 Comments

  • Jamie | March 4, 2014 4:40 PMReply

    @D:I stand corrected. Their names were part of an article I once read about older actresses that had not had "work done." However,they must have used incredibly skilled surgeons because they don't have that waxy stretched face like so many others do. But you are right,the double standard the industry uses with women is disgusting.

  • Jamie | March 4, 2014 3:10 PMReply

    Kim's unfortunate plastic surgery is a product of Hollywood's (and society at large's) obsession with being youthful at all costs. There are,however,actresses that don't succumb to it and are doing fine. Meryl Streep and Sally Field don't look like they've had anything done. Neither do Judy Dench or June Squibb or Helen Mirren. Many fine actresses of the past didn't go in for nips or tucks and continued working until they were quite elderly. Bette Davis never had anything done,neither did Shelley Winters and she comitted the other Hollywood "sin" as well--getting fat! Angela Lansbury ,Lauren Bacall,Shirley MacLaine and Jane Fonda all look wonderful ! So, it actually isn't a requirement that actresses get plastic surgery to remain in the business. Maybe if more of them said "no" to the agents or managers or whoever pushes them to do this,there would be less wax museum figures like Ms. Minelli and Ms. Novak and more naturally aging beauties like Ms. Streep and some of these younger actresses would realize that talent is more important than an unlined face or a tight tush.

  • D | March 4, 2014 4:09 PM

    Fonda and MacLaine have both admitted to having work done. Not everyone wants to age, but it's disgusting that this impacts women far more than men.

  • equipmentguy | March 4, 2014 10:53 AMReply

    Very good article! and as a Indie Producer/Director went to AFM all Sales Agents/ Distributors are first wanting to know who's the Male lead for overseas sales and then of course who's the "hot" female in the film. I actually had several sales agents balk at a 28 year old TV actress we we're trying to package in our latest script because they said she was getting "up there". Christ almighty that means an actress now has between the age of 15 & 25 to make their living. No wonder the use of botox and plastic surgery is getting more prevalent each year. We don't allow women to age gracefully, look at the mean spirited Tweets that are out there about Kim's appearance. I'm thinking about right now she's regretting ever showing up for the awards and my opinion of Matthew McConaughey went up even more for the kindness he showed. As for Hollywood I'm left with the famous line:
    "Forget it Jake, It's ChinaTown"
    pretty much says it all for tinseltown.

  • Bobbyc | March 4, 2014 5:09 AMReply

    What is at stake by her appearance? Nothing. Nothing at all.

  • Chris L. | March 3, 2014 10:39 PMReply

    I thought this was quite sensitively written (and thanks also for the Siren link). Like you, I felt awful about Ms. Novak's evident discomfort on stage more than anything else. It can happen to anyone in that environment - even Steve McQueen seemed at risk of hyperventilation - but somehow, one sympathizes even more with Novak by virtue of the intense vulnerability she brought to many of her classic roles, and of course the obscene societal pressures you mention.

    It might have helped if the show's writers had given her something better to say than wanly salacious rejoinders about "Magic Mike." But at least that was consistent with the rest of the evening's canned "wit."

  • mark | March 3, 2014 9:59 PMReply

    "...Lazily breaking the debate into opposing camps without even an attempt at analysis does no one any good."

    And Sammy Adams, your hard-hitting journalism has elevated the craft, has it? Yeah, this piece has "integrity" all over it.

  • Sam Adams | March 5, 2014 12:50 PM

    And you are a guy arguing (very poorly) with me.

  • mark (one mo time) | March 5, 2014 4:29 AM

    My apologies to the hard-working, good people at Starbucks who serve me latte frapps every morning on my way to work.

    STARBUCKS (tm): The First Taste Will Be Your Favorite!

  • Mark (again) | March 5, 2014 4:22 AM

    You're welcome, hack!

    (you can't win at this, you know... hello, you're an INTERNET MOVIE CRITIC. that makes you *slightly* more practical than STARBUCKS COFFEE-SERVER-PERSON.)

  • Sam Adams | March 4, 2014 2:33 AM

    Your pure sarcasm without even an attempt at substance fortunately has rescued things. Thanks, dude.

  • Gina | March 3, 2014 5:44 PMReply

    I'm not sure what she looks like without the face altering magic, but this " look " that she and lets face it....many many other actresses succumb too ( Joan Rivers, Priscilla Presley, Cher and this evening , even Liza Minnelli ) is a little scary. They all end up looking like animated puppets who can scarcely move their faces or their mouths to speak or emote. That said, Hollywood can be cruel to even the most beautiful of people, so it must be very difficult to be an aging starlet in that business . I feel sorry for these women.

  • Karen | March 3, 2014 5:10 PMReply

    Well said, valid points. Something to really think about." Damned if you do and damned if you don't.", as they say.

  • Suzanne | March 3, 2014 4:45 PMReply

    Seriously - I dare anyone at that age (if you live that long btw) to go onstage in front of millions and look anywhere near that good or understood as well. Jeesh. The lady did great.

  • Snark | March 3, 2014 4:42 PMReply

    "actressesses" is quite a word.

  • François | March 3, 2014 4:35 PMReply

    But, Sally Field looked great, what is her secret?

  • kizze | March 3, 2014 5:16 PM

    Sally Field was born in 1946 and Kim Novak was born in 1933. That might account for some of the "secret."

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