Lauren Bacall: The souring of a Hollywood legend

These days, alas, "The Look" is better known for her huffs and her hissy fits. And at Venice, recently, Miss Lauren Bacall did one of her worst numbers. She was there at the film festival for the premiere of
Birth, along with Nicole Kidman, whose mother she plays in that film. Mother to the lead is not the lead, and some actresses close to 80 (her 80th birthday is next Thursday) would have been grateful for being there, and having work. And the question was innocent enough.

These days, alas, "The Look" is better known for her huffs and her hissy fits. And at Venice, recently, Miss Lauren Bacall did one of her worst numbers. She was there at the film festival for the premiere of Birth, along with Nicole Kidman, whose mother she plays in that film. Mother to the lead is not the lead, and some actresses close to 80 (her 80th birthday is next Thursday) would have been grateful for being there, and having work. And the question was innocent enough.

A journalist asked Bacall, "And now you've worked alongside another screen legend, Nicole Kidman ..." only to be interrupted by that voice which critic James Agee once likened to a trombone: "She's not a legend. She's a beginner ... She can't be a legend. You have to be older."

The real sadness of that soured ego is that 60 years after her own debut, she still doesn't get it. In 1944, for a season, Lauren Bacall was a legend on the strength of a few lines and several smouldering glances in one film, To Have and Have Not. She pushed the effect through by playing that girl's slightly older sister in The Big Sleep (1946), and by then she had pulled off the greatest trick in the whole legend business: she had won her co-star (so much older, wiser and sadder), Humphrey Bogart, as lover and husband. I call it a trick, but not because I doubt the feelings of infatuation that ran both ways. I mean trick as in magic, for there never would be a purer case of life taking its example from the screen.

If she had only ever made those two films, her 80th birthday would be being honoured now, and somewhere in the world her two pictures would be playing, just as James Dean's three hold their place. Of course, Dean's legend was enormously assisted by sudden, unfair termination. Bacall's, I fear, has survived, or endured her later work. If only she was a quarter the actress we have seen so far in Nicole Kidman. And if only she could be nice and polite sometimes. But I suppose she got the idea early that insolence might be her thing.

That was how Howard Hawks proposed her to Bogart in advance of To Have and Have Not. He told the hard-boiled actor (just coming off Casablanca), "We are going to try an interesting thing. You are about the most insolent man on the screen and I'm going to make a girl a little more insolent than you are."

Fat chance, said Bogart. But Hawks told him he was going to plan every scene so that the girl put the hook into Bogart, gave him a look and then walked out on him. That's the entire ethos of that sublime and ridiculous moment when Bacall, playing a profoundly motherless and precocious femme fatale on the island of Martinique, flirts with Bogart, tells him he only has to whistle if he wants her, gives him a parting grin that would have been cut if the censors had had enough sexual experience, and says, "You do know how to whistle, don't you, Steve? You just put your lips together and blow." It was an exit line, but Lauren Bacall walked into history and into her tough co-star's soft heart. Where had she come from? What poker game on the outskirts of hell had had her as the prize money? How was any 19-year-old so knowing? The answer to her whole life, I think, was that she wasn't knowing.

The knowledge that shone out of her greedy eyes, the promise of unimaginable delights, was all in the mind of Howard Hawks, who effectively owned her at the time, and had serious intentions about being on the receiving end of her seductive aura.

Betty Joan Perske was born in the Bronx in 1924. She was Jewish. Her father, William Perske, was Polish, with some French. Her mother, Natalie Weinstein-Bacal, was German and Romanian. The Bacal was dropped by the immigration authorities, but Natalie reinstated it when she and William divorced, and when she and Betty moved from Brooklyn to Manhattan.

It was a strict, modest upbringing. "You had it drummed into your head from childhood by your mother, grandmother, uncles, that nice Jewish girls didn't smoke - weren't fast - nice Jewish girls had character. 'Don't chase a boy, ever - if he wants to see you, he'll call; if not, forget him.' But what were you to do if your head was filled with dreams of beauty, glamour, romance, accomplishment, and if you were stuck with being tall, ungainly (I didn't know I was 'colt-like' until a critic said I was), with big feet, flat-chested - too young to have finished high school at 15."

I don't think Betty Bacal ever quite qualified as beautiful. But she had the kind of looks that men notice and remember. Her mother paid for her to go to the Julia Richman High School, and then the American Academy of Dramatic Arts. That's where she met and dated the young Kirk Douglas (eight years her senior), and it's how she got some modelling offers. In 1943, thanks to the decision of editor Diana Vreeland, she made it on to the cover of Harper's Bazaar.

There is an extraordinary photograph in which Bacall is leaning against the outside door of a Red Cross blood donor room. She wears a chic suit, gloves, a cloche hat with long waves of hair falling from it. I suppose it's a picture that says: even society women are giving blood for our boys. But there's a fascinating subtext, coming from the film noir style and the look on Betty's very hard, hardly 19 face, which says: "Watch out at the Blood Donor office - They have sultry vampires waiting there." One suck and our boys are men.

Cut to Hollywood where Nancy "Slim" Hawks, herself a famous fashion plate, the wife of Howard Hawks, is looking through the new magazines. She sees the cover, hands it to Howard, and with more generosity than common sense, perhaps, says, "Take a look at her." Howard got the point straightaway. Within a matter of days he had Betty under personal service contract. He thought of the new name "Lauren" and he asked her to test for To Have and Have Not.

Was it as simple as that? Hardly. Hawks and his wife schooled the kid in what clothes to wear, and Hawks even asked Betty to study the way Slim talked, and try copying it. The girl is actually called "Slim" in To Have and Have Not - and the Bogart character, Harry Morgan to others, is called "Steve" by "Slim" (the names Howard and Nancy kept for each other).

So it was the portrait of a fond marriage? Not quite, because Howard was undoubtedly determined to lay Betty, and while Betty may never have encouraged that thought, she did not discourage it either. This was her big break. Hawks got her to deepen her voice (he sent her up to Mulholland Drive at night to recite poetry until she became hoarse), and he did everything a director can do to make her act like his dream: very young, yet very worldly, utterly free but sweetly obedient.

I spell it out like that because I'm not sure that Lauren Bacall ever liked or even understood the Svengali act. The years have suggested that she was never as loose, cool, hip or natural as Slim in that film or as Vivian Rutledge in The Big Sleep. But in those two pictures, she has Hawks guiding her and Bogart teasing her along (plus a genius named Jules Furthman doing a lot of the dialogue).

Bacall became very famous very quickly. She got her own star contracts. She married Bogart and they had a son, Stephen, and a daughter, Leslie. But the odd fact is that she never worked steadily. There were two other pretty good films with Bogart - Dark Passage and Key Largo - but the absence of Hawks is very telling. Bacall was revealed as very limited, rather stiff and haughty, a natural frowner and not terribly appealing.

See for yourself in Confidential Agent (where she's awful), Young Man with a Horn (with Kirk Douglas) and Bright Leaf. And after that, in movies, she was never really a lead, but a figure in ensemble casts and limp movies - How to Marry a Millionaire (the picture is remembered for Marilyn Monroe); Woman's World; The Cobweb; Blood Alley; Written on the Wind (Dorothy Malone got the Oscar); Designing Woman; The Gift of Love (as a dead mother who comes back to earth to help her husband and child).

By then, 1958, Bogart was dead and Bacall was clearly awkward casting. She was a New York socialite. She nearly married Frank Sinatra. She dated presidential candidate Adlai Stevenson. And she did marry again, to Jason Robards Jr. But she made only three films in the 1960s, none of them memorable. Indeed, her most notable work was on stage, in Cactus Flower.

In the 1970s, she had another success, playing the Bette Davis role in the musical Applause, adapted from All About Eve. That won her a Tony. But the films were few and far between. It was only in 1996 that she at long last got an Oscar nomination, as supporting actress, playing Barbra Streisand's mother in The Mirror Has Two Faces. Even then, people said that her best acting was the stifling of disbelief, dismay and wrath when she actually lost that Oscar (to Juliette Binoche for The English Patient).

It's not fair: she could have had an Oscar for To Have and Have Not (even if it was for outstanding juvenile performance!). But that staggering performance was so far ahead of its time - and such natural learning material for actresses to come, including Nicole Kidman. In Venice, apparently, Kidman was embarrassed that Bacall was given so few questions in the press conference. For Kidman is wise and generous enough to know that two films are sufficient - and so Lauren Bacall is famous for ever, no matter that she and Slim were two cats that passed in the night and never saw much resemblance.

A LIFE IN BRIEF

Born: Betty Joan Perske, 16 September 1924, in New York City, to William Perske and Natalie Weinstein-Bacal.

Family: Married to Humphrey Bogart, 1945-1957; (one son, Stephen Humphrey Bogart; one daughter, Leslie Howard Bogart); and Jason Robards Jr (1961-1969; one son, Sam Robards).

Education: American Academy of Dramatic Arts.

Career: First film, To Have and Have Not (1944); latest, Birth (2004). Tony Award forApplause (1970). Golden Globe forThe Mirror has Two Faces (1996). Two autobiographies: Lauren Bacall By Myself (1978) and Now (1994).

She says...: "Stardom isn't a profession; it's an accident."

They say...: "Lauren Bacall has cinema personality to burn, and she burns both ends against an unusually little middle." - James Agee, film critic, on To Have and Have Not

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