I doubt that Kim Novak (1933-) will be remembered for the comedies in which she appeared with Jack Lemmon and others (though many have affectionate memories of “Bell, Book, and Candle” with Novak, Lemmon, and James Stewart). Her niche was as a martyr to her beauty, at least someone who wanted to be loved not just desired, but rather passively accepted suitors old enough to be her father (in addition to Stewart, in ascending order by birth-year, Fed MacMurray, Tyrone Power, Frank Sinatra, Peter Finch, Dean Martin Jeff Chandler, William Holden).
The one movie in which the age of the desiring male was an issue is also the one with the hugest age gap, “Middle of the Night” (1959), in which the 26-year-old Novak played by Betty Preisser, who was supposed to be 24, a receptionist in a New York garment factory managed by Jerry Kingsley (the 62-year-old Frederic March, supposed to be 54). She is recently divorced from an itinerant (I’m not sure about “straying”) jazz musician (Lee Phillips), to whom she was physically attracted but with whom she was increasingly unhappy during the three years of their marriage.
Jerry’s wife died two years earlier, and other than work he has no life, jealously defended by his spinster sister and de facto housekeeper (Edith Meiser) and daughter (Joan Copeland) who lives in New Rochelle with a husband (Martin Balsam) frustrated by her unwillingness to care as much about him as she does about her father. On the other hand, the manifest unhappiness Jerry’s boozing womanizing partner, (Albert Dekker) is a spur to try to grab some life before it is gone.
The April-December romance is not greeted with any happiness by Betty’s circle, bitter long-abandoned mother (Glenda Farrell), bitter gal pal (Lee Grant), or still lust-filled ex-husband who returns from Vegas with plans to settle down (in a steady job at least) and wants her back.
The American version of “kitchen-sink realism” of the 1950s was purveyed on small screen and big by Paddy Chayefsky. “Middle of the Night” was the third adaptation to the big screen of plays or teleplays (or, in this case, both) written by Chayefsky and directed by Delbert Mann, following the acclaimed (not least with best picture and best actor Oscars) “Marty” and “Bachelor Party.” (Richard Brooks had also directed an adaptation of “The Catered Affair,” and for Mann “Middle of the Night” was between movies based on plays by Terrence Rattigan and William Inge, “Separate Tables” and “The Dark at the Top of the Stairs”).
Betty and Jerry are living lives of quiet desperation and fearful of the relationship Jerry seeks and Betty acquiesces to (grateful for being treated well though not in love or lust with Jerry). Dekker, Farrell, and Grant have showier parts and Martin Balsam has a cri de couer speech. I don’t see Phillips as a compelling challenger to the fragile age-discrepant relationship, even if he is backed by Mama who conspires to leave him alone with her daughter.
I didn’t realize that March’s part was supposed to be Jewish, though the garment business should have told me that. And he could not pass as 56 to me. I think it would have been better to change the lines to the 62 he was.
On stage in 1956, the age gap between Edward G. Robinson and Gena Rowlands was similar (37 years) and the age gap in the original (1954) television version (also directed by Mann) between E. G. Marshall and Eva Marie Saint was only ten years.
I’m not convinced that people during the 1950s (in New York) talked or behaved as Chayefsky’s characters do. He can shriller and concocted cartoonish characters in such later movies as “Hospital” and “Network,” but his screenplays attracted talented actors, as in “Middle of the Night.” I think Novak’s acting talent was limited, but Betty was pretty much typecasting of her and she conveyed her tentativeness and weariness with male fantasies well, as she memorably had in “Picnic” and “Vertigo.” And the passivity in going along with what an older man wanted was already on display in her first movie for Columbia, “Pushover” (1954 with Fred MacMurray, her senior by 25 years).
BTW, March was nominated for a best actor in a drama Golden Globe, as was Charlton Heston who undeservedly won the best actor Oscar (in Ben-Hur). Both lost to Anthony Franciosa in “Career,” a movie I have not seen (indeed, did not know existed). My choice would have been James Stewart in “Anatomy of a Murder” (he was nominated for the Oscar, along with Golden Globe comedy best actor Jack Lemmon from “Some Like It Hot,” but not for a Golden Globe best actor in a drama one).