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Over the course of my career, I have had the privilege of meeting many of Hollywood’s biggest names, but rarely, if ever, have I been as excited as I was on the handful of occasions when I crossed paths with Lauren Bacall, who died today at the age of 89. I know that many others in the business who love classic movies feel the same way.
Why? Because Bacall was a true legend in a world in which that superlative is used often but rarely with justification — in her case, there was no question that it was merited — and she was one of the last and best remaining ties that we had to Hollywood’s long-gone Golden Age. Consider the following.
She was a product of its dream factory. A Jewish girl from the Bronx named Betty Joan Perske who did part-time modeling, she was “discovered,” at the age of 19, by director Howard Hawks‘ wife, who happened upon her picture in an issue of Harper’s Bazaar and urged her husband to audition her for To Have and Have Not (1944). He asked his secretary to track her down, but the secretary instead sent her a ticket to Hollywood, whereupon she knocked her screen test out of the park. She was promptly signed to a seven-year contract which called for her to be paid $100 a week, given a new name, taught a lower-pitched voice and, fatefully, paired with one of the industry’s biggest stars, Humphrey Bogart. Both Bogart and Hawks fell in love with her during the making of To Have and Have Not, but she only had eyes for Bogart. “Bogie and Bacall” went on to marry in 1945 and to make three other films together, The Big Sleep (1946), Dark Passage (1947) and Key Largo (1948). She remained his “Baby” until his death from esophageal cancer in 1957. (Hawks would later say, “Bogie fell in love with the character she played, so she had to keep playing it the rest of her life.”)
She embodied its glamor. Anyone who could tame Bogie had to be pretty special, and she was. In her initial screen test, she conquered her nerves by tucking her head down into her chest and, with locks of her blonde hair spilling over her face, staring up at the camera, which gave off a sultry, come-hither vibe that couldn’t have been sexier and came to be known as “The Look.” In her first film, she was given a heck of a double entendre to deliver — to Bogie, no less: “You know how to whistle, don’t you, Steve? You just put your lips together — and blow.” And, in the years thereafter — initially in Holmby Hills, where she lived with Bogie, and later back in New York, where she lived in The Dakota apartment building on the Upper West Side — she became a fashion icon. Thanks to her model’s body and unflappable confidence, she looked good in anything — but she wore only the best. (Madonna name-checked her in the rap portion of her song “Vogue.”) Oh, and she and Bogie also ran with the hippest of crowds: indeed, when Bogie and a group of his friends came back from a trip to Vegas, she told them, “You look like a goddamn rat pack,” thereby coining the term by which the rotating group of the coolest of cool guys came to be known. She was known as their “den mother.”
She exemplified its conscience. She was a tough broad and made no apologies for it. During an era in which studios essentially owned actors, she — emboldened by her relationship with Bogie, who was untouchable — turned down roles that she felt were beneath her talents, thereby earning a reputation for being “difficult.” She also spoke her mind politically. She and Bogie were the marquee members of the Committee for the First Amendment, a star-studded group of Hollywood liberals who opposed the tactics of J. Parnell Thomas‘ House Committee on Un-American Activities and flew to Washington, D.C., to raise awareness of and sit in on the hearings as 10 Hollywood figures who had been subpoenaed by the committee took the stand and refused to cooperate. (Bogart later distanced himself from the trip after he and the CFA’s other members came under fire from conservative Hollywood gossip columnists.) She also aggressively campaigned for Democratic political candidates (in 1952 for presidential candidate Adlai Stevenson, with whom she became very close, and in 1964 for U.S. senatorial candidate Bobby Kennedy), criticized George W. Bush and embraced the cause of gay people, becoming a gay icon in the process.
She proved that she was not only a great star, but a talented actress. Her looks may have gotten her in Hollywood’s door, and her marriage to Bogie may have kept her inside, but she remained there long after her youth and first marriage had ended because she proved she belonged there. Bacall took the craft of acting very seriously, studying at the highly regarded American Academy of Dramatic Arts in New York before going west. (While there, she was very kind to a poor classmate named Izzy Demsky, even procuring a thick winter coat for him when she learned that he didn’t have one. After World War II, she helped to secure him work in Hollywood. By that time he had changed his name to Kirk Douglas.) Of her work in Hollywood, people mostly remember her pairings with Bogie, but she also starred in a number of other first-rate films, including the jazz pic Young Man with a Horn (1950), opposite Douglas; the musical comedy How to Marry a Millionaire (1953), alongside Betty Grable and Marilyn Monroe; the women’s weepie Written on the Wind (1956), with Robert Stack and Rock Hudson; the screwball comedy Designing Woman (1957), co-starring Gregory Peck; and the star-studded mystery Murder on the Orient Express (1974). In 1997 she won a Golden Globe and was nominated for an Oscar, for the first time, for her performance as Barbra Streisand‘s mother in Streisand’s The Mirror Has Two Faces. She was widely expected to win, but the award instead went to Juliette Binoche for Harvey Weinstein‘s pet cause of the year, The English Patient. (The Academy made amends in 2009 by presenting her with an honorary Oscar “in recognition of her central place in the Golden Age of motion pictures.”) It should also be noted that she also worked quite often on Broadway, winning Tonys for Applause (1970), an adaptation of the 1950 film All About Eve, and Woman of the Year (1981). But it is for her work in the movies that she is and always will be best remembered, and, in 1999, the American Film Institute named her one of the 25 greatest female screen legends in American film history.
I will treasure the few minutes that I got to spend with Lauren Bacall on two occasions in 2008: the first backstage at a Boston University tribute to her and Susan Sarandon that was held in September, to which she insisted on bringing along her beloved dog, and the second at a November party that followed the New York premiere of Milk, during which she sat and chatted with this young Los Angeles Times reporter, in between receiving fawning tributes from the likes of Natalie Portman, about how much she admired Sean Penn‘s performance. When I think about her in the future, though, the images that will come to my mind, like most everyone else’s, will be from more than a half-century earlier, long before I was even a figment of someone’s imagination, when she began acting in films that will live on long after I am gone. That’s the magic of the movies. That’s the magic of Lauren Bacall.
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