Sultry, sophisticated and sassy, screen siren Bacall dies at 89
Published 14/08/2014 | 02:30
How the 'leggy blonde huntress' conquered the world of cinema.
The cinema icon Lauren Bacall has died at the age of 89. The star's electric partnership with Humphrey Bogart brought a new allure to the big screen. She introduced a new style of sexual equality to the Hollywood cinema in the 1940s by co-starring in two films with Humphrey Bogart; the couple fell in love while making Howard Hawks's To Have And Have Not (1944) and were married when they made the same director's The Big Sleep (1946).
Tall, blonde, slim and sultry, with a hoarse voice and a cryptic personality, Miss Bacall was the perfect match for Bogart's rugged cynicism, "a leggy, blonde huntress," as one critic noted, "whose cat's eyes never blinked before Bogart's scowls". In each film they created a special atmosphere of dry, terse comedy and tough guy talk which masked their underlying affection for one another and seemed unique in popular cinema for the balance of power their roles created between the sexes.
Sensual but never sentimental, insolent, sharp-witted, laconic, cool and above all sophisticated, they seemed, as another observer put it, even to kiss out of the corners of their mouths.
Higher brows were moved to compare the tone of these mating games with that of Beatrice and Benedick in Much Ado About Nothing, though the style owed more to Raymond Chandler or Hemingway than to Shakespeare. At all events, they brought a new and personal chemistry to the screen which made the partnership refreshingly equal at every level.
Although Bacall was an actress of accomplishment in her own right, it was her acting in only four films with Bogart and their enduring marriage that turned them as a couple into the stuff of legend, and enhanced her own dramatic reputation more than any acting she did elsewhere in films and plays.
One of her most famous lines was in To Have And Have Not when they were about to go their separate ways after bidding each other goodnight. At the door she turned and said: "If you want me, all you need to do is whistle. You know how to whistle? You put your lips together and… blow."
As the American critic James Agee wrote: "Whether or not you like the film will depend almost entirely on whether you like Miss Bacall. I am no judge... It has been years since I have seen such amusing pseudo-toughness on the screen."
Lauren Bacall, who was born in New York City as Betty Joan Perske on September 16 1924, was the only child of William Perske, a salesman of medical instruments from Alsace, and his wife Natalia, of Rumanian and German-Jewish extraction. They divorced when she was six. The mother adopted the name Bacal; the daughter added an "l" to stop it rhyming with "crackle". She always disliked "Lauren", the name bestowed on her by Hollywood, preferring to be known as Betty.
Educated at the expense of wealthy uncles at a private boarding school, Highland Manor, Tarrytown, New York, and at the Julia Richman High School, Manhattan, Betty intended to be a dancer, having attended ballet classes since infancy. But in adolescence she was drawn to acting.
Inspired by Bette Davis films, she enrolled at the American Academy of Dramatic Arts when she was 15, dating Kirk Douglas, who was there on a scholarship; but as the academy precluded scholarships for girls, she was obliged to leave after a year before bluffing her way into a job modelling sportswear.
Sacked for being Jewish, or flat-chested (or both), she took another job modelling gowns for a Jewish dress shop and in the evenings worked as an usherette. In 1942 she made her stage debut at the Longacre Theatre, New York, as a walk-on in a melodrama called Johnny 2 X 4, and played the ingénue in a pre-Broadway tour later that year. Then she took a job modelling for Harper's Bazaar.
Leafing through the magazine in 1943, Mrs Howard Hawks, wife of the Hollywood producer, drew her husband's attention to the girl on the cover. Hawks cabled the magazine asking if she was free, and she turned up on their doorstep.
After a screen test she signed a seven-year contract with Hawks and the producer Jack Warner for $250 a week, changing her name from Betty to Lauren. Hawks went to work on her voice. Taking her to some waste ground, he made her shout Shakespeare and other writers for hours every day in order to lower the tone of what he called her high nasal pipe.
After the daily exercises in the open air her voice became for him (and for the rest of the world) what he called "a satisfactorily low guttural wheeze". He then insisted that in future she should always speak naturally and softly. Above all, she should ignore suggestions for "cultivating" her voice.
Within a year of her discovery on the front of Harper's, Hawks had cast her with Bogart in To Have And To Have Not and directed her in such a way that her acting, with its insinuating sexuality and offhand independence, caused a sensation.
Hawks had urged her to play each scene exactly as she felt her character would behave: to act as if she were living the part. If she were true to her own feelings, she would be true to the film.
At 19 she had become, in her first film, one of Hollywood's most sensational, relaxed and dominating newcomers: husky-voiced, aloof and shrewdly impervious to insult.
This was Bogart's most interesting screen partner for years, in an otherwise hazy melodrama about the French Resistance at Martinique with Bogart as a sea skipper, edgy, grey-voiced, unsure of this strange girl called Marie.
Some of her lines entered film mythology: "Was you ever bit by a dead bee?" and, after Bogart has kissed her for the second tentative time: "It's even better when you help." To everyone's astonishment, she also sang (or rather croaked and growled, like a trombone) a suggestive song in a seamen's bar.
In 1961 Lauren Bacall married the actor Jason Robards. (There had been earlier talk of marriage to Frank Sinatra, "but Frank just couldn't cope with the idea" she said years later).
Lauren Bacall was, perhaps, an actress more famous for whom she was thought to be than for what she actually did.
"It was those pale eyes framed by a tawny mane, a way of walking that suggested a panther in her family tree, and a husky voice that could set a spinal column aquiver," noted one reviewer.
Her memoir, By Myself, appeared in 1978, followed in 2005 by And Then Some by way of an addendum. In this she described working visits to Paris making Robert Altman's satirical Prêt à Porter (1994) and to Britain, where she starred in The Visit at the Chichester Festival in 1995.
Lauren Bacall received a Golden Globe and an honorary Oscar. In 1996 she was nominated for an Academy Award for best supporting actress for her role as Barbra Streisand's mother in The Mirror Has Two Faces. She continued to make occasional appearances on screen, including, in 2006, appearing as herself in an episode of The Sopranos. In 2004 she had a supporting role alongside Nicole Kidman in Birth, a psychological drama directed by Jonathan Glazer.
Her marriage to Jason Robards ended in divorce in 1969. In 1983 there had been talk of marrying Harry Guardino, a former film co-star, but it came to nothing. She had a son and a daughter with Humphrey Bogart and a son with Jason Robards.
(© Daily Telegraph, London)