By giving Bacall the Best Supporting Actress award for her performance as Barbra Streisand's mum in The Mirror Has Two Faces, the unlikely assortment of ageing foreign journalists who preside over the Golden Globes are confirming what most of Bacall's fans have tried to deny for so long, namely that her career has been in decline since roughly about 1944, when it started. Once the cynosure of Hollywood, the brightest, most insolent star on the Warner Bros lot, who exasperated studio bosses by turning down any role she didn't care for; the actress with, or so the National Academy of Vocal Arts proclaimed in 1949, the "sexiest voice in the world"; a siren who only had to whistle to make men come running, Bacall now has the status of a musty old ornament, brought out to bedeck other people's movies in character roles. From Bogart's lover to Streisand's mum - the mirror does indeed have two faces. To anyone who has seen the famous Harper's Bazaar photographs of Bacall as a 19-year-old, taken in 1943, in all of which she displays an extraordinary cool, an arrogant composure belying her years, the idea that she'd play "supporting actress", second fiddle, to anyone seems unthinkable.
Of course, most troupers of her vintage are grateful for any roles, let alone ones that win them prizes. (Don't forget that the likes of Barbara Stanwyck and Donna Reed were reduced to playing Edith Evans-like matriarchs in American soap operas in their dotage.) Moreover, Bacall is so embedded in popular consciousness as one of the great old stars that we accept her as such, without asking what great old movies she has actually appeared in. In truth, there aren't that many.
Beyond her two classics with Howard Hawks, To Have and Have Not and The Big Sleep, in both of which she gives off such a searing erotic charge it is a wonder the celluloid itself doesn't burn, little else in the filmography leaps out. She was always good opposite her old husband Bogart, whether or not Hawks was directing, but even in John Huston's Key Largo and Delmer Daves's Dark Passage, her persona seems somehow dimmed, her arrogance much less pronounced.
"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. She was like Dietrich and Mae West rolled into one. However, watch her in How to Marry a Millionaire, a lurid, Twentieth Century Fox technicolour gold-digging extravaganza made a few years later, and she seems positively etiolated by comparison with her co-star, Marilyn Monroe.
Perhaps the movie that reveals most tellingly how much she missed her Svengalis, Hawks and Bogart, was Douglas Sirk's Texas oil-family melodrama, Written on the Wind (1956). Sirk's wildly extravagant, rococo style was not ideal for an actress as cool as Bacall. She wasn't the type to play a pantomime alcoholic or a lachrymose nymphomaniac like her two, respective co-stars, Robert Stack and Dorothy Malone, but that still doesn't account for how dowdy and reserved she seems. She gives the unfortunate sense that she feels herself too classy for this kind of farrago.
Classy is Bacall's downfall. As she frequently tells interviewers, between asides about how shy she really is beneath the icy facade, "my sophistication is a barricade". Like a crocodile of old Nile, she is now often as much exhibit as actress, the kind of guest star who lends a little faded lustre to Agatha Christie movies (Murder on the Orient Express, Appointment with Death) or dresses up as Diana Vreeland (Pret a Porter). To be fair, she has given a series of sterling performances in character parts (for instance, as James Caan's literary agent in Misery or in her current, award-winning incarnation as Streisand's mum), but there is something both bathetic and sad about seeing such a star relegated to the supporting cast.Reuse content