The Greats: Lauren Bacall

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Whenever an older, revered icon of the film industry dies, there are plenty of testimonials and remembrances written about that person. But it’s sad that we only take the time to fully appreciate these people’s brilliance after their passing. Hence, The Greats, a biweekly column that celebrates cinema’s living legends.

Even after all this time, there’s something strange about seeing Lauren Bacall in color. Maybe it’s because some of her greatest work was in film noir, but she’s always seemed better suited to black-and-white—to a bygone, romanticized vision of the silver screen that probably never actually existed. It’s not just me: Bacall herself longed for a career that was part of Hollywood’s early years. “If I could have lived as an actress in any period,” she once said, “it would have been the 1920s—I would have loved to have been part of that speakeasy era.”

But she came of age at a different time. And then life intervened.

Bacall was born in New York City in September 1924. Her name was Betty Joan Perske, and her father, whom she refers to as a “bastard,” ran out when she was five. “Bacall” came from her grandmother, who was “Bacal.” (“Lauren” would come later when she moved to Hollywood.) Initially, she wanted to be a dancer, but she tried acting and modeling. (“I didn’t think I was ever any good,” she told The Guardian about her modeling days. “I didn’t look at all like any of the other fabulous-looking creatures.”) Her luck changed, though, when she appeared on the cover of Harper’s Bazaar in the spring of 1943. Filmmaker Howard Hawks’s wife Nancy saw the 18-year-old on the front of the magazine and mentioned to her husband that he ought to think about casting her in something.

A year later, her first film hit theaters. To Have and Have Not, the story goes, came together when Hawks made a bet with author Ernest Hemingway that he could make a movie out of Hemingway’s worst novel, which Hawks deemed to be To Have and Have Not. Whether you agree with Hawks’ assessment of the source material, the film (which differs sharply from it) is a classic, and Bacall was on her way, now dubbed Lauren due to Hawks’ prompting.

“[I]t was Howard Hawks who changed my life,” Bacall told Vanity Fair in 2011. “Despite all of his great accomplishments—Bringing Up Baby, Scarface, some of the best pictures to that date—his one ambition was to find a girl and invent her, to create her as his perfect woman. He was my Svengali, and I was to become, under his tutelage, this big star, and he would own me.”

But as much as Hawks wanted to control her—and, apparently, sleep with her—he lost Bacall to her costar. When Bacall had gone to see Casablanca with her aunt a few years earlier, she hadn’t been overly impressed with Humphrey Bogart. “[Aunt] Rosalie was mad about Humphrey Bogart,” Bacall wrote in her 1978 memoir By Myself. “I thought he was good in it, but mad about him? Not at all. She thought he was sexy. I thought she was crazy.” That all changed when she filmed To Have and Have Not with Bogart. Although he was married, Bogart kissed her one night while visiting her trailer. Soon, they were an item—and soon after that, a love story onscreen mirrored one off it. As film critic Leonard Maltin described To Have and Have Not, “It’s one of these instances where it’s quite possible that we are eyewitnesses to an actor or actress falling in love, and while good actors make us believe that all the time, there has to be some extra kick when it’s real.”

Fame and love were hers now, as well as the establishment of her famous persona. Smoky voice—she finally gave up cigarettes in the 1980s—but also tough, funny and vulnerable all at once, Bacall was sexy because, even at a young age, she exuded an adult sophistication. That’s all encapsulated in the movie’s most famous line, her character Slim telling Bogart’s Steve, “You know how to whistle, don’t you, Steve? You just put your lips together and”—pause just long enough—“blow.” It’s delivered with utter confidence and nonchalance, which is even more impressive considering how intimidated she was at first about being in front of the camera. It was Hawks’ suggestion that she calm herself by putting her chin down and looking up that gave birth to her trademark sultry stare, which suggested a lifetime of experience and street smarts in someone so young.

Fresh from her star-making turn in To Have and Have Not, Bacall had other successes, costarring with Bogart in The Big Sleep—the trailer declared “They’re Together Again!”—Dark Passage and Key Largo, all in glorious black-and-white. The two were married in 1945, and while she looked at their life together as some of her happiest years, it took a toll on her career. “[H]e had told me that he wouldn’t marry me if I wanted a career,” she said in 2005. “He had been married already to three actresses, each time a disaster. And I was so mad about him I said, ‘Of course. Absolutely. I only want to be with you.’”

She still acted—her ’50s highlights include How to Marry a Millionaire and Written on the Wind—but by the time he died in 1957, her stardom was more related to being married to Bogart than to her own fine work. (“My obit is going to be full of Bogart, I’m sure,” she once said. “I’ll never know if that’s true. If that’s the way it is, that’s the way it is.”) She left Los Angeles behind, moved to New York and focused on theater. She won two Tonys for lead actress in musicals, for Applause and Woman of the Year. And she kept popping up in films—Sidney Lumet’s Murder on the Orient Express in 1974, Robert Altman’s Health in 1980—but she seemed to have mostly left that life behind. (“You can’t imagine how beautiful L.A. was then,” she said about moving to Hollywood as a young girl. “Of course, it’s all ruined now.”)

If movie fame had faded, her life kept marching forward. She married Jason Robards, their divorce one of the major topics covered in By Myself, which won her the National Book Award. Whether it was speaking honestly about her marriages or trying to break with the notion of how the traditional mother should behave, Bacall has never lost the toughness she portrayed onscreen at an early age. “I remember my oldest son, Steve, saying to me once, ‘I don’t ever remember seeing you with an apron on,’” Bacall once said. “And I thought, ‘That’s right, honey, you did not.’ That was his concept of what a mother should be.”

And she’s never lost that no-nonsense attitude, either. “There have always been rumors about me: Oh, she’s very difficult. Be careful of her,” she wrote in By Myself. “People who don’t know me—even some people who do know me—know that I say what I think. Very few people want to hear the truth. Bogie was like that, my mother was like that, and I’m like that. I believe in the truth, and I believe in saying what you think. Why not? Do you have to go around whispering all the time or playing a game with people? I just don’t believe in that. So I’m not the most adored person on the face of the earth. … But I wasn’t put on earth to be liked. I have my own reasons for being and my own sense of what is important and what isn’t, and I’m not going to change that.”

She demonstrated that beautifully while doing press for Birth, the terrific 2004 film that starred Nicole Kidman as a woman convinced that a 10-year-old boy is the reincarnation of her beloved dead husband. A reporter asked Bacall, a film legend, what it was like to work with Kidman, another legend. Bacall cut off the reporter: “What is this ‘legend’? … [Kidman] can’t be a legend, you have to be older.” It was the sort of comment that we almost never see in the film press since celebrities are so careful not to ruffle any feathers. But it wasn’t said out of spite—it was a simple fact. “What I meant was that her career is just beginning,” Bacall later clarified to The Guardian. “She is wonderfully talented, a working actress. I hate these labels, I hate categories. Why do they have to burden her with all that? Legends are all to do with the past and nothing to do with the present.”

Bacall probably understands that as well as anyone. When she shows up in a movie now, there’s a sense that a regal presence from another time has somehow beamed in to our universe. No doubt her decision to focus on being a mother and a wife curtailed her career, a choice with which professional women in many different fields must contend. But like her modest assessment of her acting ability, she seems to be at peace with how things played out.

“I put my career in second place throughout both my marriages and it suffered,” she has said. “I don’t regret it … You make choices.” As for her talent: “I don’t consider myself a great actress. I’m just trying to stay alive, actually. I think I’m good, and I’ve learned a lot, certainly, mostly in the theater. I’ve been sloughed off movies for years. But what can you do? That’s life.”

A pretty great one, actually.

Tim Grierson is chief film critic for Paste and the vice president of the Los Angeles Film Critics Association. You can follow him on Twitter.