|Sunday, January 22nd, 2006|
For the past nineteen years, what are perhaps the most expensive and glamorous pieces of off-screen background material Hollywood ever created have collected dust in the obscurity of the AFI’s Cecil B. DeMille Library storage archives. The materials in question, 180 slide transparencies of a remarkable Richard Avedon 1968 photo session with glamour goddess Kim Novak, have never been published, or their existence even publicly acknowledged, until now.
The story of the pictures, their creation and their waft down between the floorboards of Hollywood history is a unique accident of idiosyncratic talents indulging a rare burst of artistic and financial freedom, and the unfortunate fate of that collaboration.
In 1968, iconoclastic producer/director Robert Aldrich chose parlay the success of his galactic hit “The Dirty Dozen” into a highly personal dream project “The Legend of Lylah Clare.” The story of a Hollywood director (played by Peter Finch) fashioning a young ingenue into the role of his deceased film goddess wife, “Lylah Clare” stands out as one the last major parts of siren Novak’s rein, doubling as Elsa, the young actress, and the late Lylah in flashbacks.
In the film, director Finch’s home is furnished with oil paintings of Lylah which become focal pieces for many scenes. To create these paintings, Aldrich, known for his fanatical attention to key background details, hired Avedon for the then outlandish sum of $5000 to photograph Novak as Lylah, photographs that would be used as the basis for the paintings. Remembering the shoot, Novak, now in comfortable retirement on a ranch in Oregon, recollects of the pictures, “I think he felt that was really essential to establish Lylah Clare and her background and experiences.” MGM built Avedon more than eight sets for the photo shoot, including the face of a cruise ship, over the deck of which Novak gazes forlornly.
The 180 surviving transparencies from the shoot show an extraordinary collaboration between a photographer and actress both at the height of their powers. While the film, was ultimately panned for its overwrought melodramatics, the pictures, stark in their composition but lavish in their details and their emotional complexity, tell a complete and rich story. The Novak pictured here is not the fresh faced girl of “Vertigo” and “Picnic” but an unfamiliar jaded, decadent woman entirely in command. The pictures show Novak in a variety of highly stylized poses – perched on a staircase with greyhounds, swinging in a Belle Monde garden, reclining on a chaise, rose in hand. But Novak’s expression of weary yet sultry, knowing cynicism colors the poses with a ironic tint at once shocking and seductive.
Remembering her work with Avedon, Novak recalls, “I found him to be rather like Alfred Hitchcock in the way that he allowed you total freedom to fill in the background of your character. What was important to Avedon and Hitchcock was the background and where you stood and the angles and in how you felt in the character.
“I had read the script and knowing that she was a famous movie star…I think it was just natural to fall into that. And of course, the sets, and having the greyhound dogs, those incredible fur coats that would just make you go right into character.”
The perfectly attuned collaboration, however, fed into what were to be bittersweet memories for the participants. “Lylah Clare” bombed at the box office, setting Aldrich’s see-sawing fortunes on a downward ascent again. Worse still for Novak, she arrived at the premiere to discover that Aldrich, seeking to sharpen the differences between her two roles, had hired an actress to dub her voice into a German accent. Novak fled the screening and never again spoke to Aldrich. With subsequent interest in the film nil, the Avedon photos were never publicly printed or acknowledged. The slides transparencies remained in Aldrich’s possession until his death in 1983, when they passed along with his papers and archives to the care of AFI.
Novak, who makes a rare public appearance in Los Angeles, this month [January] at an American Cinematheque retrospective of her work, continued to live with the Lylah images in retirement. Two of the paintings created for the film were given to her after the production wrapped and hung over her husband’s desk until their log cabin home was tragically destroyed by fire in 2000, in eleven minutes burning what she believed until now, were the last traces of Lylah’s finest hour.