Forbidden Divas: A Lousy Kind of Love

I’ve been blessed with a trio of great guest-Shadowplayers this week — third up is regular contributor David Wingrove, celebrating the divine Kim N. ~


A Lousy Kind of Love

“Everybody was always sleeping at my house. That’s the one thing I’ll always remember. Everybody was always sleeping.”

–         Kim Novak, Middle of the Night

At a booze-fuelled New Year’s Eve shindig somewhere in upstate New York, one overdressed matron turns to Kim Novak and says: “You’re a very attractive young woman.” The understatement is so glaring that it provides a rare moment of hilarity in Middle of the Night (1959) a film that is otherwise quite relentlessly glum. Here as in most of her films, Kim Novak has a quality that is almost translucent – like a Classical Grecian head carved exquisitely on a priceless antique cameo. If she has a limitation as an actress, it is that she is just too luminously beautiful to play a woman who is in any way plain or ordinary or dull. It is no accident that her most successful roles – and the ones audiences remember – show her as haunted by some queer and otherworldly presence. The witch who longs to be a mortal in Bell, Book and Candle (1958) or the girl who may be a ghost in Vertigo (1958) or the starlet possessed by a dead movie queen in The Legend of Lylah Clare (1968).

The whole point of Kim Novak is that she is not quite real. Yet there she is on a screen just in front of us. It is enough to make you believe dreams do come true, after all. So whose idea was it to cast her as a dowdy secretary – lonely, divorced and embittered – suffering through a May-December romance with her much-older boss (Fredric March)? The script delineates him repeatedly as 56 (!) but he and the other characters carry on as if he were well into his eighties and reliant on life support. Kim gives the role her considerable all and turns in a jittery, nervy and overemphatic performance. She suggests a Vogue cover girl who has been required, in the middle of a shoot, to play Nora in A Doll’s House. Her work is never embarrassing but, on a scale of conviction, it ranks somewhere between Michelle Pfeiffer as a frumpy greasy spoon waitress in Frankie and Johnny (1991) and Catherine Deneuve as a grimy Mid-Western factory worker in Dancer in the Dark (2000). An audience can only resent these women in their futile attempts to look ordinary. Most of us can do that more than adequately for ourselves.

Middle of the Night is based on a Broadway play by Paddy Chayefsky – who was, in the 50s, a sort of Tennessee Williams for socially conscious New York Jewish heterosexuals. March plays a wealthy businessman in the Garment District who has recently lost his wife. He is bored by his domineering and over-protective sister and his materialistic, rather vulgar offspring. He is irritated beyond endurance by his business partner (Albert Dekker) who boasts relentlessly about his sexual exploits with “tootsies.” Of course, Dekker has a secret. (Is there anyone in a Chayefsky play who does not have a secret?) That secret is revealed portentously towards the end of the film. This self-styled ladies’ man is, in fact, impotent. This being the 50s, the dialogue puts it rather more coyly: “I haven’t been good for a woman for two years.” All this palpable middle-aged angst is used as ‘motivation’ for the fact that March feels irresistible attracted to his young secretary. Does a man actually require motivation to feel attracted to Kim Novak? Some might say that all he requires is a pulse. Failing that, an artificial pacemaker will do just as well.

As the secretary, Kim tries her damnedest to look like someone’s idea of an everyday working girl. The credits reveal that her plain and sensible wardrobe was specially designed for her by Jean Louis. That is an indication of just how well she succeeds. Being a Chayefsky character, she has had no end of pain in her own life. She is recovering from a disastrous three-year marriage to a jazz musician. Although the script is too decorous to say so, it is clear their mutual attraction was based entirely on Sex. (Tennessee Williams would have made him a truck-driver or a dock-worker and posed him provocatively in a tight-fitting string vest, but Chayefsky has no flair for eroticism of any sort. A dash of Raw Sex might actually stop his characters yacking for five minutes.) Having been so badly bruised emotionally, Kim is all too vulnerable to the attentions of this adoring older man. She enters into an affair with March – but more as a relief, it seems, than as any sort of erotic awakening. To his considerable amazement, she accepts his proposal of marriage.

Incredibly enough, Kim’s mother (Glenda Farrell) turns out to be the only working-class mother in captivity who objects to her daughter marrying a kindly and courteous older man with lots of money. She urges her to dump March and go back to her penniless, two-timing musician. Why? Chayefsky’s pretensions to gritty realism are hollow at the best of times – but this particular piece of dramaturgy reveals what a fundamentally absurd writer he is. Kim gets the same argument from her best friend, who is played by Lee Grant in one of her first movie roles. Lee Grant is by no means a more gifted screen actress than Kim Novak. She is simply more adept at playing Paddy Chayefsky’s brand of highly polished, impeccably crafted junk. Nobody could ever make a silent film out of a Chayefsky play. Like that of Neil Simon (his comedic alter ego) his work consists of dialogue and nothing but. Yet Novak, like Garbo, has the ability to convey more with a mute flicker of an eyebrow than most actors with a full-blown Shakespeare solo. She slogs her way dutifully through this thick verbal porridge, like Garbo in the film of Anna Christie (1930).

It is not entirely a surprise when Kim – assailed by self-doubts and brow-beating from her family circle – gives in to temptation and has a one-night stand with her no-good ex-husband. She makes the mistake of telling March (again, why?) and he takes the news rather badly.  He tells the poor girl that hers is “a lousy kind of love.” Having been adapted with painful fidelity by Chayefsky himself, the script splits their relationship into easily digestible dramatic chunks. The lovers go from fancying one another (Act One) to adoring one another madly (Act Two) to being unable to stand the sight one another (Act Three) with barely a hint of transition in between. That is the way plays work. Alas, it is the way films do not. The director Delbert Mann (who won an Oscar for his 1955 film of Chayefsky’s Marty) dishes it all up with stifling reverence – as if it were Strindberg, at the very least.  It takes an acute visual sense to make a successful film of a stage play, as David Lean did with Blithe Spirit (1945) or Alain Resnais did with Mélo (1986). Judging from his work here, Mann seems to lack any visual sense of any sort.

Alfred Hitchcock, who immortalised Kim Novak a year before in Vertigo, complained famously that most movies are just “photographs of people talking.” It’s too bad that Middle of the Night is barely even that.

David Melville

10 Responses to “Forbidden Divas: A Lousy Kind of Love”

  1. You’re only right. But it’s impossible to take one’s eyes off of Kim Novak in anything.

    Chayevsky “improved” with psychosis. “Network” (diva-in-residence, Faye Dunaway) is a perfect example of Ho To Make Bi-Polarity Work For You. “Altered States recreates the hallucinations he experienced when put into hydrotherapy.

    Also of note is a late-period play of his, “The Latent Heterosexual.” it starred Zero Mostel as a gay man who is encouraged to go into the closet for tax purposes. IOW it’s a play about taxes.

  2. Sounds fascinating!

  3. David Melville Wingrove Says:

    NETWORK is the only film written by Chayefsky (and I’ve seen a few) that I actually enjoyed as a film in itself. It is both hilarious and horrifyingly prophetic. I quite liked ALTERED STATES, too. But Ken Russell reworked the script so much that Chayefsky took his name off it. I suspect the film was all the better for that.

  4. What was the age differential between Novak and Stewart? In “Bell, Book and Candle” he’s decidedly gray, yet plays the character as the young aw-shucks Jimmy. In “Vertigo” he’s not explicitly December to her May, but there’s the vibe of an older man molding a young girl.

    Old leading men and young leading ladies usually went without comment. Many 30s ingenues were still teenagers when paired with long-time male stars. At the same time, actually elderliness evidently kicked in a lot sooner in old movies — for parents of teens, anyway.

    Not having seen the film in question, I get the feeling Paddy was working out something personal. The hero, played by an unglamorous actor, is carefully presented as available and worthy. Widowed, not divorced. He deserves better than the friends and relatives he’s got. He needs to be driven by that middle-aged angst to show us he’s above mere horniness. The girl is ultimately too weak and foolish to realize how lucky she is to offer her youth and beauty to such a man. It’s made clear to us how weak and foolish she is. And of course, the narrow-minded squares disapprove.

    Eons ago I read an interview with John Sayles. At one point he commented that a source of income was writing “revenge” scripts for producers. These scripts, fleshing out an “idea” drawn from the producer’s life, would center on a fine middle-aged man, dumped by his shrewish wife, finding happiness with a younger, better woman. They didn’t get made, evidently existing to validate the producers’ personal narratives.

    Through this lens, Woody Allen’s “Manhattan” is an explanation how sensitive creative mensches are ultimately betrayed by age-appropriate women, so it’s right and proper they sleep with the nymphs who appreciate them.

  5. Stewart was 25 years older than Novak. March was 36 years older.

    I think Paddy was always working out something personal, which is one of his best traits. And I think the story with Altered States is that Ken Russell was forbidden to alter a comma of the script, but his handling of it in terms of dramatic nuance so appalled Chayefsky, a producer on the project, that he took his name off it anyway. Faced with scenes of extensive science babble, Russell had his actors deliver them at breakneck speed, sometimes shouting while disappearing down an offscreen corridor, sometimes while eating… I think it works great!

    The revenge script thing is fascinating. I would like to have that gig. I would suck at it, but then it wouldn’t matter anyway.

  6. The late great Dorothy Dean became a pal of Paddy’s after seeing “The Hospital” which he adored. She told me all about Paddy’ experiences in hydrotherapy. “Revenge” was Dorothy’s favorite subject and her favorite movie in this regard was “The Other Side of Midnight”

    Dorothy figures in My Most Recent Article which is about Older men pursuing younger ones, IOW Kevin Spacey. I drop into the Wayback Machine to retrieve a memory of when I was the young man being pusued by an older one.

  7. I *really* like The Hospital although the male angst takes off into some insupportable directions in that one. PC gets un-PC. He felt the script was deformed — he had to decide whether to settle the murder mystery or the protagonist’s personal problems first. Under ideal circumstances they would coincide, but detective stories rarely allow sufficient room for fulfilling character arcs.

  8. Great article, David! It’s clear that a lot of young men could have been protected better if Spacey’s various employers had taken heed of the rumours. Even if they still wanted to hire the actor, they could have kept a better eye on him.

  9. Well that would have taken those films WAY over budget. Now Spacey is unemployed. Curiously Bryan Singer has been hired to direct a remake of “Red Sonja” Why eludes me. Forget the pedophilia, he’s wildly erratic, often walking off the set whenever he feels like it. Most of “Bohemian Rhapsody” was directed by an uncredited Dexter Fletcher.

  10. David Melville Wingrove Says:

    Why is there this sudden mania for remaking the whole of the Dino de Laurentiis back catalogue? First Denis Villeneuve is redoing DUNE and now Bryan Singer is rehashing RED SONJA. These movies were box-office stinkers the first time round.

    What’s next, I wonder? Quentin Tarantino directing a remake of KING OF THE GYPSIES performed entirely in Romany dialect? Nothing would surprise me, to be honest.

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