Maitland McDonagh profiles Lauren Bacall

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How rare and marvelous is a debut like Lauren Bacall’s? So rare and marvelous it sounds made up, a fairy tale contrived to fire the imaginations of dreamy girls mired in humdrum lives : One minute Betty Bacall was a model and aspiring actress living with her fiercely protective mother and grandmother in New York City, the next she wasa Hollywood starlet appearing opposite the world-famous Humphrey Bogart in 1944’s To Have and Have Not, the stuff of overnight success stories and small-town dreams. The marvel of it isn’t just that Bacall’s Marie “Slim” Browning, a beautiful adventuress washed up on WWII-era Martinique with little more than a suitcase and a set of light fingers to her name, is a rich and substantial role, a femme fatale so sweetly mercurial she seems to shimmer. It’s that Lauren Bacall — or “Lauren Bacall,” if you want to be scrupulous about separating persona from flesh-and-blood – seemed, like Athena, to have sprung into being fully formed. Sleek and vibrantly secure in her own skin, mysterious, worldly and vastly older than her 19 years, yet radiantly unblemished by whatever experiences shaped that wary smile and smoky, know-it-all voice.

The key word is, of course, “seemed.” By her own characteristically frank account, Bacall was a sheltered young woman, self-deprecating and quick to crack a joke at her own expense, convinced that sooner or later someone was bound to see through the sophisticated charade to the nervous, inexperienced girl underneath. Though her image is intimately connected with the hard-edged shadows and smoldering cigarettes of film noir, Bacall only made four truly noir films: To Have and Have Not (1944), The Big Sleep (1946) , Dark Passage (1947) and Key Largo (1948). To Have and Have Not was the least noir of the lot, a story about wartime heroics in the Caribbean, divorced from noir’s typical big-city setting, cheap criminal protagonists and predatory sexual perversity. Bacall’s slinky, slippery Slim owns the screen from the moment she asks “Anybody got a match?”, leaning against a door frame, light striping her body and a cigarette lying languidly across her lower lip. She looks like a femme fatale and she sounds like a femme fatale; beautiful though Bacall is in living color, B&W is her natural element, all cream smudged with smoke. Her Slim is a knockabout girl who picks pockets, drinks scotch and water like one of the boys and has an awful lot of fancy clothes for a girl traveling with a single suitcase. She’s mysterious and alluring, not above lying or using what she has to get what she wants, but there’s no mistaking Bacall’s Slim for a poisonous spider woman like scheming Brigid O’Shaugnessy, Phyllis Dietrichson or Cora Smith, of The Maltese Falcon, Double Indemnity and The Postman Always Rings Twice, respectively; Gun Crazy’s pistol-loving Annie Laurie Starr; the reflexively duplicitous Kathie Moffett (Jane Greer) of Out of the Past or Detour’s hitchhiking harridan (Ann Savage). Slim is beautiful enough to turn every head when she strides confidently through a hotel bar, but insecure enough to feel like a scrawny little girl when self-assured Harry Morgan (Bogart) dubs her “Slim.” She’s worldly enough to deliver the film’s signature line — “You know how to whistle, don’t you, Steve? You just put your lips together and blow” — and yet manages not sound like a hardened tramp. Actress Dolores Moran’s character — Mme de Busac, the fugitive wife of a wounded French freedom fighter — was meant to be a secondary love interest for Harry, but once Hawks started looking at dailies she didn’t have a chance.

Real-life couples are often curiously lifeless together on screen, but To Have and Have Not captured the blossoming of Bogart and Bacall’s grand romance in all its intensity; the chemistry is all Slim and Steve’s. Bogart and Bacall are equally dazzling in The Big Sleep and make the absurdities of Dark Passage – based on a novel by David Goodis, the most lyrically lunatic of pulp writers – crackle with erotic tension. Even Key Largo, a true ensemble piece with a first-rate cast, could easily blow away under the pressure of its windy theatrics without the anchor Bogart and Bacall provide. She grew more confident, didn’t suffer fools gladly and never failed to speak her mind. In the mid-1950s she confronted powerful gossip columnist Hedda Hopper, who’d written unkindly about her, and called Hopper a bitch. “You’re right. I was,” said Hopper. “Why don’t you give me a kick?” And Bacall did.

The Bacall legend has her plucked from a crowd of pretty faces, as unschooled and skittish as a colt, and reinvented as a star. Like most legends, there’s some truth mixed in with some colorful myth-making.

She was born Betty Joan Perske in New York City on September 16, 1924, raised by her mother and extended family after her parents’ divorced when she was six. Her Romanian-born mother reclaimed her maiden name, Bacal, when her daughter was eight; Betty added the extra “l” when she started working, so people wouldn’t wonder how to pronounce it. The serious daughter of industrious, self-reliant women, Betty dreamed of being an actress. Tall and whippet-thin — skinny, they used to call it, before bones and angles were all the rage — she took dance lessons until she was told that her feet were wrong for ballet. She took acting classes at the New York School of the Theatre and adored Bette Davis. After graduating from high school, Bacall studied for a year at the American Academy of Dramatic Arts — voice, improvisation, body movement, pantomime. But her family couldn’t afford a second year’s tuition, so she went to work modeling on Seventh Avenue — the heart of New York’s garment industry — sold copies of Actor’s Cue, auditioned for plays and took a second job as a theater usher at night. She loved movies, but coming of age when great performances and premieres of soon-to-be classic plays were Broadway’s nightly norm, she imagined her future in the theater. Betty worked as a hostess at the Stage Door Canteen, a nightclub run by the USO and staffed by theater folk, a place where young servicemen far from their families and girlfriends could get a hot meal, dance with a pretty girl, have a cup of coffee and feel, for a couple of hours, less lonely and afraid. She was cast in a bit part in a forgotten play called Johnny 2 X 4 and a slightly larger role in a George S. Kaufman comedy called Franklin Street that died in out-of town tryouts.

The legend proper begins with a photograph on the cover of Harper’s Bazaar, commissioned by the imperious fashion editor Diana Vreeland. Vreeland looked at gangly Betty Bacall and saw qualities the teenager hardly knew she had, and not just a lovely figure, luminous skin, full lips and sparkling blue eyes — though she had those and more. The key to Bacall’s look was The Look, the way she tilted her chin down into her collarbone and gazed up. It was bold without being vulgar, challenging in a good-natured way and sexy as hell. The Harper’s cover shot of Bacall standing in front of a Red Cross sign, wearing a chic suit and an inscrutable expression, changed her life. Nancy “Slim” Hawks, the beautiful, fashion-savvy wife of veteran director Howard Hawks, suggested he take a look at this lovely girl, whose direct stare and forthright manner burned like ice. She was far from the only person to notice: Bacall fielded offers from all sides, including an offer to represent Harper’s Bazaar in a Rita Hayworth picture called Cover Girl, and inquiries from the office of legendary MGM producer David O. Selznick, who’d been told she was rather like a now-forgotten actress named K.T. Stevens. Her beloved Uncle Jack favored Hawks’ offer of a personal contract, so Hawks it was – he encouraged her to cultivate the low, husky voice that became part of her signature, telling her that it started out exactly right, but the pitch rose when she got excited. Bacall read The Robe aloud in the Hollywood Hills until she got it right.

Bacall always disparaged her own work, occasionally allowing that while she’d never made a great film she’d been in some good ones. But she never gave less than she was capable of, never took the paycheck and phoned in the performance. She might have been carelessly cast, she might not have thought much of the way a project was shaping up, but she was always thoroughly present. Bacall’s self-possession served her well: No leading man ever made her look bad, and no role ever seemed small. And she’s funny: The flip side of the noir siren is an accomplished comedienne who can get a laugh just by cocking one fine eyebrow.

Sylvia Broderick, her role in 1964’s Sex and the Single Girl (the model for the smutty retro comedy Down With Love), is a variation on the old battle-ax stereotype- she’s convinced her milquetoast husband is cheating and regularly throws him out of the house – but her response to dewy sex therapist Natalie Wood’s declaration that she doesn’t drink is priceless: “That’s ridiculous,” Bacall retorts, tone as dry as a perfect martini — and she looks smashing in a black-sequined evening sheath.

She’s delightful as a principled golddigger in How to Marry a Millionaire (1953) and singles out Designing Woman (1957), a standard-issue opposites-attract romantic comedy — she’s a fashion designer, Gregory Peck is a sportswriter — as one of her favorite films. Even the late Robert Altman’s shaggy, shapeless Pret a Porter (1994), in which she plays another Slim – color-blind fashionista Slim Chrysler – is a better picture for her presence. If ever a woman could compete with the Chrysler Building’s sleek art deco exterior, it’s Bacall.

Despite its brilliant first act, Bacall’s movie career was a series of ups and downs; it slowed down after her marriage to Bogart, picked up again after his death and tapered off as she approached 40, as beautiful and more fiery than ever. She fulminated against Hollywood’s obsession with youth and marched herself back into theater, starring in Goodbye Charlie and Cactus Flower (her roles went to Shirley MacLaine and Ingrid Bergman, respectively). She walked away with two musicals drawn from classic movies: Applause, which was based on All About Eve — she played Bette Davis’ role, aging diva Margo Channing – and Woman of the Year, adapted from the Katherine Hepburn-Spencer Tracy film. Bacall made television movies, invested supporting roles with so much genuine star power that they gleamed and, at the age of 80, remains as fearless as ever – she not only worked with Lars von Trier in his controversial Dogville (2003), but went back a second time for Manderlay (2005). “I intend to keep working until I drop,” she said recently, “which I hope will not be today or tomorrow.”

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Maitland McDonagh

Formerly's senior movies editor/reviewer, Maitland McDonagh now has her own site, Miss, and freelances for Film Comment, Time Out NY and other publications. She has written four books -- Broken Mirrors Broken Minds: The Dark Dreams of Dario Argento, Filmmaking on the Fringe, The 50 Most Erotic Films of All Time and Movie Lust -- and contributed to many others, including Film Out of Bounds, Fantasy Females, The Last Great American Picture Show and Exile Cinema. Read McDonagh's recent artilces below. For her Women On Film archive, type "Maitland McDonagh" into the Search Box (upper right corner of screen).