Getting Picked On at the Oscars at Age 81

Kim Novak's appearance and the plight of the Hollywood sex symbol

"​Kim Novak's Face Is the Talk of Twitter" says an E! headline the morning after the Oscars. The talk seems to be a bunch of people arriving at the same joke about the 81-year-old Vertigo star thinking she'd arrived to present an award for "Frozen," because of the way her face looked. Donald Trump, speaking as he does for civilization's baser instincts, tweeted that "Kim should sue her plastic surgeon!’"

In her celebrity heyday, Novak was a Hollywood sex symbol who followed in the wake of, and often was compared to, Marilyn Monroe. Film critic Farran Nehme writes in a short but powerful blog post this morning that her fame came after she modified herself for Hollywood: new name, new hair, new teeth, and the like.

Columbia Pictures' Harry Cohn engineered much of this transformation, and part of his management style was to feed her insecurities. "Where there was an especially cruel phrase in an article, Cohn would read it to Kim an extra time or two, for emphasis," Nehme relates, before going on to talk about last night's Oscars:

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. 

It's no secret that society both encourages and stigmatizes cosmetic surgery for women. People have a lot of different opinions on this—maybe we should stop encouraging; maybe we should stop stigmatizing. Either way, perhaps we can agree that laughing at Novak in this case is particularly awful.

Nehme's post is worth reading in full, here.

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Spencer Kornhaber is a senior associate editor at The Atlantic, where he edits the Entertainment channel. More

Before coming to The Atlantic, he worked as an editor for AOL's and as a staff writer at Village Voice Media's OC Weekly. He has also written for Spin, The AV Club,, Field & Stream, and The Orange County Register.

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