Oscar wrap-up, part two: Why we need to talk about Kim Novak

The Oscars were just over a week ago, but I’m still talking about them because I haven’t gotten around to talking about the appearance of Kim Novak, and I feel I must.

If you don’t know, Kim Novak was one of the most sought-after starlets of the ’50s and ’60s, starring in dozens of films, most memorably as the object of Jimmy Stewart’s obsession in Hitchcok’s Vertigo.


And if you weren’t watching the Oscars a week ago, you may not know that Novak, now 81 years old, appeared there as a presenter, but was almost unrecognizable because of the amount of work she’s had done on her face in order to appear much younger than she is.


When Novak walked on the strage, gripping the arm of her co-presenter, Matthew McConaughey, like she might either fall over or fall apart without him, a hush fell over the Dolby Theatre as everyone in the audience—and all of us watching at home—realized that Novak had decided she would rather her skin appear smooth and artificial than wrinkled and old.

It was honestly the saddest moment of the whole night.

And, in that moment, it hit me that this is what we do to women in this country—we teach them that their value is derived solely from their physical appearance, we teach them that it’s better to look unreal than to look elderly, that it’s better to look plastic than wrinkled, that it’s better to hide who they are than to be themselves.

As Oscar Host Ellen Degeneres jokingly said, “I’m not saying movies are the most important thing in the world. I’m not saying that—because the most important thing in the world is youth.”

In that way, Kim Novak’s appearance at the Oscars last Sunday sums up everything that’s wrong with our expectations for American women, who are taught over and over again that looking young and pretty is a goal worth achieving at any cost.

A cost Novak seems more than willing to pay.

And I’m terrified that I’ll see her choices repeated over and over and over again on the faces of the women around me as time and science march on.

I was lucky enough to be at the beach yesterday, and the middle-aged mother sitting next to me was literally wearing a string bikini.

A leopard-print spring bikini.

I was pretty sure she was around my age, and sure enough, later in the day, I heard her say that she “wasn’t forty YET.” (I’m 43.)

Despite the fact that we are virtually the same age, this woman had the body of a twenty-year-old. Her upper body was flawless—with sculpted abs, a flat stomach, and toned arms—and her legs had only enough cellulite for someone who was really looking to notice.

Still, though a part of me admired her discipline—you don’t keep a body like that into your 40s without a hell of a lot of trips to the gym—I didn’t envy her. Because all I could think was that her charade would soon be coming to an end, and when it did, she’d have to face the fact that she wouldn’t be young forever.

I worry, too, that such a realization will send beautiful women like her straight to the plastic surgeon where they can be nipped and injected and tucked until no sign of their aging appears. But no sign of their former selves either.

Despite this, I can’t help but note that Novak—and other women in Hollywood like her, who have chosen the plastic surgery route over the age naturally route—are the ones who aren’t really working as actors anymore.


Though you wouldn’t know if from the pictures above, at 82, Maggie Smith is only one year older than Novak, and despite the fact that she has chosen not to hide her age, she continues to work with much success.

Judi Dench, 79, too has embraced her age, and her career is thriving…

Judi Dench

Though younger than Novak, Smith, and Dench, Susan Sarandon, 67…


and Diane Keaton, 68, have done the same…


So if the women who are getting work in Hollywood are the ones who are not afraid to age naturally, I can’t help but wonder why Novak—and others like her—are so afraid to do so that they engage in such risky behavior.

Perhaps looking into Novak’s past will give us the answer.

When Novak was twenty, the modeling agency where she worked described her this way: “Hands, marginal; legs, hefty; neck and face, flawless.” Pretty soon “studio executives made her cap her teeth, bleach her hair, shrink her body with a strict diet and exercise regime, and perpetually paint her face with the help of a personal makeup artist.” And Novak’s agent used to “read her every bad review she got. And she got plenty; Novak was never a darling of the press. If she tried something dramatic, she was wooden. If she did a sexy role, she was too heavy, too dumb. When she went to the Oscars one year and posed on the red carpet, one columnist sniped that Novak was ‘aping Marilyn’s every move.’”

It’s not hard to understand why someone whose been put through that kind of scrutiny would be afraid to be herself. My God, it seems that Hollywood probably destroyed not only Novak’s self-esteem but her looks as well. Perhaps the reason that actresses like Dench and Smith were never obsessed with staying young is because their faces were not as famous as Novak’s in their youth.

And maybe what we can learn from Novak is that, unless we stop worshipping at the alter of youth and physical perfection, then we all run the risk of some day, like Novak, falling victim to the belief that there is only one kind of beauty.

It’s sad to admit, but it seems that Novak has suffered such a fate.



  1. Z says:

    I liked your article.

    This, however:
    “Still, though a part of me admired her discipline—you don’t keep a body like that into your 40s without a hell of a lot of trips to the gym—I didn’t envy her. Because all I could think was that her charade would soon be coming to an end, and when it did, she’d have to face the fact that she wouldn’t be young forever.”

    This contained an assumption. There is nothing wrong with going to the gym at any age. My granddad runs 7 miles every other day at age 72. Is that to maintain his youth? No, it is to live long and feel good– and because he enjoys running itself. Everyone should go to the gym, for as long as they can. It is unnatural quests to attain “youthful” posture and physique– surgery, self-starving– that are inimical to the health of body and mind. Being actually healthy is great!

    • admin says:

      Thanks for the comment, nelsonaba@yahoo.com.

      I could not agree with you more. And if I wasn’t clear, I apologize. I’m a firm believer in daily exercise as you can see from the “healthy living” page of this blog, which in fact discusses the importance of exercising more than once a day. When I said that I admired the bikini-clad woman’s discipline, I meant it in all seriousness. I was not being facetious.

      The “charade” I mentioned coming to an end was not her exercise habit, but her presumed belief that she could keep looking as fit as a twenty-year-old much longer. As a daily exerciser myself, I know that’s not something any of us can maintain as we get older no matter how much we exercise or how healthy we are. That’s part of the reason I created this blog—to reject the notion that we have to be flawless to be healthy and beautiful.

      Thanks again for commenting!

  2. Ida says:

    Thanks for writing this blog. I think it’s great. By the way, have you seen the Anti Diet Project over at Refinery 29 (http://www.refinery29.com/the-anti-diet-project)? It’s all about reconnecting with your body, trusting your intuition about food and being healthy.

    And about this post: I agree that Kim Novak is symptomatic of a culture where women are being judged by their appearence, no question there. There is just one small thing that bothers me, namely that the four women you use as examples of women who age naturally and still have great careers, all look amazing for their age. And of course, there’s absolutely nothing wrong with that. But they are not your typical woman, either. (Maybe I’m nitpicking here, sorry if I am.)

    • admin says:

      Thanks, Ida! Looking forward to checking out the Anti Diet Project.

      I fear that it’s difficult to find photos of any women in Hollywood who don’t look great. They may look different in real life, but in the photos I can find on the internet, they all look amazing because they can afford stylists, hairdressers, and makeup artists. I do think Maggie Smith and Judi Dench are regular looking women in real life, don’t you?

      I did think about including June Squibb, but since she’s so new to Hollywood, I thought she would defeat the purpose of saying actors should age gracefully. Perhaps I should have included Kathy Bates or Betty White. I chose not to include Bates because she was never a “leading lady” (and thought about not including Dench for the same reason) because I wanted to show women who are counterparts to Novak–women who have been “leading ladies” in the past and who are now aging gracefully. Betty White would have been an excellent example. Can you think of any other former “leading ladies” who are aging gracefully?

      • Ida says:

        Of course you’re right about the photos. These women might be quite regular looking in real life. (It just goes to show how easy it is to forget (or rather: to not constantly remember) the power of styling, good lighting, retouching etc.)

        I suppose my point wasn’t so much that we shouldn’t look to these women as people who have great careers while aging naturally. They are all of them amazing and aging (and aging amazingly). My point was rather just to point out that us ordinary women folk should also be aware that if our ideal is to age naturally and look as good as they do, that’s just not realistic.

        Helen Mirren is another leading lady whom I greatly admire for her acting skills and grace, but if I think that I will look as good as her when I get older, then I will surely be disappointed.

        That being said, I do think it’s great to be shown examples of women who do get properly old and who still have fantastic careers. It’s definitely something to be happy about.

  3. Kim NOrman says:

    Well written post! I agree with your point that some actresses who have aged naturally are still getting jobs — although Hollywood seems to keep hiring the same half-dozen over and over, so I’m not sure if that means others are being passed over, or if there are only a half-dozen women left in Hollywood without cosmetic scars. Since I don’t know any of them, I can’t say whether all of the women you pictured have had NO work done, but I can say that I’m certain Ms. Keaton has. She looks great and not artificial, but she did a movie about a dozen years ago in which she had very visible jowls. A year or two later, in “Something’s Gotta Give” with Jack Nicholson, somehow those jowls had magically disappeared. This does not happen in nature. So even the “gracefully aging” women are — sad to say — being forced to have work done, even though they’re cast opposite men whose paunches and wrinkles are accepted by society.

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