Maitland McDonagh profiles Lauren Bacall
How rare and marvelous is a debut like Lauren Bacalls? 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 1944s To Have and Have Not, the stuff of overnight success stories and small-town dreams. The marvel of it isnt just that Bacalls 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. Its 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 noirs typical big-city setting, cheap criminal protagonists and predatory sexual perversity. Bacalls 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. Shes mysterious and alluring, not above lying or using what she has to get what she wants, but theres no mistaking Bacalls Slim for a poisonous spider woman like scheming Brigid OShaugnessy, Phyllis Dietrichson or Cora Smith, of The Maltese Falcon, Double Indemnity and The Postman Always Rings Twice, respectively; Gun Crazys pistol-loving Annie Laurie Starr; the reflexively duplicitous Kathie Moffett (Jane Greer) of Out of the Past or Detours 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. Shes worldly enough to deliver the films signature line You know how to whistle, dont you, Steve? You just put your lips together and blow and yet manages not sound like a hardened tramp. Actress Dolores Morans 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 didnt 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 Bacalls grand romance in all its intensity; the chemistry is all Slim and Steves. 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, didnt suffer fools gladly and never failed to speak her mind. In the mid-1950s she confronted powerful gossip columnist Hedda Hopper, whod written unkindly about her, and called Hopper a bitch. Youre right. I was, said Hopper. Why dont 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, theres 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 wouldnt 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 couldnt afford a second years tuition, so she went to work modeling on Seventh Avenue the heart of New Yorks garment industry sold copies of Actors 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 Broadways 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 Harpers 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 Bacalls 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 Harpers 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 Harpers Bazaar in a Rita Hayworth picture called Cover Girl, and inquiries from the office of legendary MGM producer David O. Selznick, whod 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 shed never made a great film shed 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. Bacalls self-possession served her well: No leading man ever made her look bad, and no role ever seemed small. And shes 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 1964s Sex and the Single Girl (the model for the smutty retro comedy Down With Love), is a variation on the old battle-ax stereotype- shes convinced her milquetoast husband is cheating and regularly throws him out of the house – but her response to dewy sex therapist Natalie Woods declaration that she doesnt drink is priceless: Thats ridiculous, Bacall retorts, tone as dry as a perfect martini and she looks smashing in a black-sequined evening sheath.
Shes 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 shes a fashion designer, Gregory Peck is a sportswriter as one of her favorite films. Even the late Robert Altmans 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 Buildings sleek art deco exterior, its Bacall.
Despite its brilliant first act, Bacalls 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 Hollywoods 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.