Lauren Bacall: In appreciation of a 'siren who never lost her poise'

Bacall's reputation rests on a handful of films all made at the start of her career – but what films they were

Lauren Bacall made an astonishing first impression.

The actress was only 19 when she made her debut in Howard Hawks’ To Have And Have Not (1944). Hawks’ biographer Todd McCarthy recalls that Bacall was “beside herself with nerves” when she shot her first scenes with Humphrey Bogart.

Nonetheless, the impression she gave on screen was of coolness, self-possession, mischief and a predatory sexiness that made even the hardbitten Bogart quake a little. She was the absolute personification of the “Hawksian woman.” Her famous line, “You know how to whistle, don't you, Steve? You just put your lips together and... blow,” became almost as as famous, and misquoted, as the “play it, Sam” refrain from Casablanca.

Bacall’s sensational debut was more than matched by her performance in Hawks’ wonderfully convoluted Raymond Chandler adaptation, The Big Sleep (1946.) Bacall put across the smart, cynical dialogue, laden with double entendres, as if this was her natural way of speaking. Nobody could smoke a cigarette in quite as provocative way as she could either.

In her prime, which was at the very start of her film career, Bacall was the brightest star on the Warner Bros lot. She had grace, beauty and insolence. In 1949, the National Academy Of Vocal Arts proclaimed that she had the “sexiest voice in the world.”

 

Bacall had briefly been a model. Hawks discovered her indirectly through Harper’s Bazaar photographs in which she had appeared in 1943. Contemporary journalists were quick to spot her qualities. “She has a javelin-like vitality, a born dancer's eloquence in movement, a fierce female shrewdness, and a special sweet-sourness. With these faculties, plus a stone-crushing self-confidence and a trombone voice, she manages to get across the toughest girl a piously regenerate Hollywood has dreamed of in a long, long while," Time magazine wrote of her in the mid-Forties.

Somehow, Betty Joan Perske, as she had been born, had emerged fully formed at the very start of her career as the most glamorous and sophisticated female lead of her era.

True to the image that she portrayed in screen, Bacall wasn’t the type to be pushed around by studio bosses. She exasperated Warner Bros with her extreme fussiness about the roles she played.

When we look back at Bacall’s career, it’s those two early films with Hawks (and with her future husband Humphrey Bogart) that still register by far the most strongly. The late 1940s was far and away her best period in Hollywood. It included such enduring thrillers as Key Largo and Dark Passage. She was a natural in film noir, a siren who never lost her poise regardless of the violence or erotic mayhem she encountered (and provoked.)

It is overstating it to say that Bacall’s later career was an exercise in anti-climax. However, Hollywood was changing. In a brash new world of CinemaScope, Technicolor and of Marilyn Monroe, her 40s’ cool began to look anachronistic.

It didn’t help that she wasn’t offered roles comparable to those she played for Hawks. She appeared alongside Monroe in How To Marry A Millionaire, a comedy vehicle better suited to Monroe’s buxom charms than to her sophistication. Her class and aloofness, which had previously been an intrinsic part of her appeal, began to seem a hindrance.

Bacall went on to give a series of perfectly serviceable character performances in melodramas, murder mysteries, action adventures and even westerns. No-one could do hauteur quite like her. Her elegance didn’t diminish in the slightest either. Always the trooper. she was ready to experiment. Perhaps her most unusual late role was in Lars Von Trier’s pared down, Brechtian-style Dogville (2003) – a film as far away from old style Hollywood glamour as it is possible to imagine.

When the American Film Institute drew up a list of 100 top movie stars in the mid 1990s, Bacall came in at 20. Nobody begrudged her right to be there, even if her best work was already by then 50 years in the past. Bacall’s reputation rests on only a handful of films that were all made at the very start of her career – but what films they were!

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