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On the Academy Awards and Kim Novak's Face

Photo of Sam Adams By Sam Adams | Criticwire March 3, 2014 at 4:25PM

Mocking Kim Novak for succumbing to the image industry's pressures isn't fair. But it might be better than letting it slide.
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Novak

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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