Lauren Bacall: a panther in her overall family tree
The love affair with Humphrey Bogart and her sensual sophistication made Bacall a sure-fire hit
Published 17/08/2014 | 02:30
Lauren Bacall, who has died aged 89, was just 19 when she made her first film, To Have And Have Not. She was so nervous her chin trembled violently, and the only way to still it was to tuck it into her neck and look upwards through her wide-set, pale blue-green eyes. This was to be her Look, and on camera it appeared cool, level, faintly appraising. Her low, growly voice was the product of shouting Shakespeare for hours every day on an empty film lot, until she dropped a couple of octaves from what director Howard Hawks called her "high nasal pipe". The voice and the Look worked together so that the film's many killer lines - "You know how to whistle, don't you? You just put your lips together and blow," "was you ever bit by a dead bee?" - became entirely her own, and the character she played, Slim, a tough but naive drifter, became an enduring style icon, and the inspiration for a generation of women sick of playing the ditzy ingenue.
As a debut appearance, Bacall's turn as Slim was remarkably complete, never improved on or much deviated from. Even her comedy - she was excellent as the gold-digging Schatze Page in How To Marry A Millionaire - owed more than a nod to the cool independence of her very first screen shot, wearing a tailored check jacket and demanding "anybody got a match?" in the doorway of Humphrey Bogart's life.
Because Hawks was the Hollywood who finally came calling, after several failed attempts to break into acting, Bacall went along with everything he suggested, changing her name to Lauren instead of Betty, because he said it was classier (although she disliked it and, off-screen, remained Betty), turning up at endless parties to be photographed and speculated over, and learning to act as if she were living the part. Hawks had a relentless and restless Pygmalion complex, and the type of woman he sought to create was modelled on the tough, independent, sexually experienced but - crucially - much younger women of the Hemingway set he hung out with. On the scale of Hollywood make-overs though, his management of Bacall was pretty minor stuff; a name, a voice, a few appearances. Bacall's slinking, feline grace - "a panther in her family tree" was one critic's explanation - and studied independence of spirit, were all her own. The rest of that enduring legend was probably created spontaneously in response to Humphrey Bogart's battered, decent masculinity. He was her co-star in her first film, her husband until his death, and his influence on the phenomenon that was Bacall was every bit as pronounced as Hawks'.
Lauren Bacall was born Betty Joan Perske in the Bronx, New York, the only child of a salesman and a secretary who divorced when she was five. Betty barely saw her father again, living with her mother and taking her Romanian surname - Bacal, to which she added an extra 'l,' to stop it sounding like 'cackle'. A wealthy uncle paid for her to go to private boarding school, and take ballet lessons - until 15, she intended to be a dancer, but was inspired by Bette Davis films to try acting. She enrolled at the American Academy of Dramatic Arts, where she met and briefly dated Kirk Douglas, but didn't stay because she couldn't afford it. Instead she began to work as a model, starting with sportswear - she was mocked for being Jewish and flat-chested - then moving to modelling evening gowns for a dressmaker, at the time an unglamorous, faintly demeaning occupation. Money was still tight, and she supplemented her income with a night-job as a cinema usherette. A couple of small, walk-on parts in off and pre-Broadway shows led nowhere, and whatever potential she had went unnoticed, until Diana Vreeland, fashion editor of Harper's Bazar, spotted something in that face and frank gaze. Vreeland styled her for the cover of Bazaar against a door saying 'American Red Cross Blood Donor Service.' Lit like film noir, Bacall is wearing a navy trench and red handbag, with a white shirt underneath, and a look that says she will go her own way, but you might want to come along.
The cover was spotted by Nancy Hawks, the impeccably stylish wife of Howard, and Bacall's career began.
"I've been very lucky in my life, probably luckier than I deserve," Bacall said in 2009, receiving an honorary Oscar. "I was chosen to work in a film with a man called Humphrey Bogart . . . It didn't thrill me too much at first. I thought, 'Cary Grant - terrific! Humphrey Bogart - yucch . . . but that was my great luck. He was an extraordinary man. He gave me a life. And he changed my life."
By the time of To Have And Have Not, post-Casablanca, Bogart was a sure-fire leading man. Aged 44, on his third marriage - to Mayo Methot, an actress with a minor career and a major alcohol problem - he was not planning on falling in love with a 19-year-old, particularly not Howard Hawks' latest protegee in her first outing as an actress. He and Mayo were a hard-drinking, quick tempered couple, nicknamed 'the Battling Bogarts' - but Bogart was determined to stick by the marriage. The chemistry between him and Bacall was instant - a fellow actor described it as "like an explosion" - but Bogart resisted, at first anyway.
Bacall had no such reservations, or baggage. She fell for him with all the exuberance of first love matched with a spirit of great adventure. In her autobiography, she wrote about those early days, of going to meet Bogart one night on Rodeo Drive, against the orders of her mother, who told her she should stay in bed: "I ran up the street - arms open wide, hair flying - to Bogie's smiling face and safe embrace . . . it was just that Bogie had to see his Baby. What it felt like to be so wanted, so adored! No one had ever felt like that about me. It was all so dramatic, too. Always in the wee small hours when it seemed to Bogie and me that the world was ours - that we were the world."
Eventually Bogart gave in, filing for divorce from Mayo and sending a telegram to Bacall saying "Please fence me in, baby - the world's too big out here and I don't like it without you." Theirs was a chemistry and a script written as if by Raymond Chandler himself, full of terse one-liners and exaggerated cool, but underneath the crackling innuendo and noir-ish suggestiveness, was plenty of warmth and kindness. She was his hope of redemption, young, unspoiled, idealistic, and he was manifestly, unashamedly, her hero. They married in 1945, and were together until Bogart's untimely death at 57 from oesophageal cancer.
Their second film together, The Big Sleep, adapted from a Chandler novel, again directed by Hawks', is probably Bacall's best. Even though she was still only 20, she holds the camera's attention completely, with a sophistication and smoulder that makes Philip Marlow's inability to step away entirely believable. Afterwards, playwright Moss Hart told her "you realise from here you have nowhere to go but down?" Alas, he was right; everything thereafter was a subtle disappointment, a failure to recapture the early highs of her persona. John Huston's Key Largo in 1948 is as close as she came again, and Gentlemen Prefer Blondes showed she could turn the laconic sensuality into comedy, but in general, the long rest of her career is angled at a gradual decline.
Marriage to her hero probably didn't help. Bogart blamed the fact that his first two wives had acting careers for his divorces, and believed that a wife's place was by her husband's side. Bacall wanted to make him happy, to carry on being 'Bogie's Baby.' When the Hollywood Rat Pack was formed in the back room of Romanoff's, with Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin and Sammy Davis Jr, Bacall was voted Den Mother.
She had two children with Bogart, and gained a reputation for being difficult as she turned down so many scripts. In fact, there were never enough good scripts, the kind that showed her strength and sensuality (Alistair Cooke described her with great affection as about"as fragile as a moose") and too quickly she moved into matronly roles and cameos. Of Bacall, you could say, in truth, 'the pictures got smaller,' although she had magnificent later-life turns in Lars von Trier's Dogville and Manderlay. "Film is not a woman's medium. If you weren't the hottest kid in town, men stayed away from you," she wrote in her autobiography.
Together, she and Bogart were Hollywood good guys, campaigning for Democrat contenders and speaking out against the blacklist of suspected Communists during the McCarthy era. After he died, she had a predictable affair with Frank Sinatra that inspired some talk of marriage, but "Frank just couldn't cope with the idea," she said later. Instead she married actor Jason Robards, another hard drinker, in 1961 and had a child with him, but the marriage ended in divorce.
The legend of Lauren Bacall was created almost instantaneously, from her first films and the love affair with Bogart, and never really developed further. She lacked self-confidence - admitting to feeling nervous always - but was unusual in Hollywood in that after Bogart, she never seemed to need a man or a relationship to define her.
The coolly appraising kid who stood in the doorway asking for a match in To Have And Have Not was clearly visible in the grande dame who accepted an honorary Oscar by drawling, "I can't believe it; a man at last".
Robin Williams obituary, page 33