' Cinema Romantico: In Memoriam: Lauren Bacall

Thursday, August 14, 2014

In Memoriam: Lauren Bacall


Only when she passed away at the age of 89 in New York from complications of a stroke on Tuesday did I realize I always assumed that Lauren Bacall was indestructible. The movie screen makes those projected onto it larger than life, and Lauren Bacall was larger than most – nay, all. Death would never become her, I figured, because, well, wasn’t she immortal?

In hindsight it seems like she arrived already ensconced in immortality, born of the Greek god of motion pictures, fully-formed and primed for stardom. Jean Harlow foundered as an extra and in the periphery of shorts for years. So did Marilyn Monroe. Bacall was all of a sudden there. Most actresses have to wait their entire careers to get a line as good as “Anybody got a match?” and that was the first one she ever spoke, and she spoke it in that unmistakably sultry voice that was so absolutely her you could imagine little Lauren Bacall on the playgrounds of The Bronx freaking out the other kids when she asked if anybody had a juicebox. She took the match, lit her cigarette, tossed it behind her with stylishly purposeful indifference, and then walked away. It’s not so much her declaration of intent to be a star as her saying “I was a star before I walked in this room.”

Of course, none of that was really her. She was born a Betty in 1924, studied acting at the American Academy of Dramatic Arts, dabbled in modeling and landed a cover on Harper’s Bazaar which was where Slim Keith saw her. She was the wife of Howard Hawks, director of such classics as “His Girl Friday”and “Bringing Up Baby”. He hired Betty, changed her name to Lauren, coached her to lower the voice to the huskily lascivious levels the whole world knows so well. She has confessed to, in fact, being scared out of her mind on set, trembling with such tension that The Look – the patented Bacall facial expression that I continue to contend should actually enter the lexicon as a verb, “Bacall” – was designed as a means to help keep her wits. Head down, eyes up, mischievous but deliberate, attitudinal to the max. It’s a little like what George Clooney was always doing early in his career, but whereas his was natural, hers was intentional. There’s a reason Clooney didn’t blossom into a true blue Movie Star until he ditched that expression just as Bacall likely wouldn’t have been one if she hadn’t acquired it. They were each creating a persona.

Richard Brody once wrote, “What makes a movie star is the inability to subordinate oneself to a character—the charismatic force of personality that renders the star more fascinating than any scripted role.” While I might argue Bacall could subordinate herself to character as she aged and grew her skill set, particularly late in the game when she turned up in “Birth” and for select films of Lars von Trier, and even earlier in “Written on the Wind”, I would not term her unwillingness to subordinate herself to the character an inability so much as a power. Her singular power. In her earliest and finest films she essentially overwhelmed her roles with charismatic force. We remember them – “To Have and Have Not”, “The Big Sleep”, “Key Largo” – and we remember her in them but the specifics of who she was playing and what she was doing were often rendered immaterial once she spoke or Looked. What part could any screenwriter possibly devise to equal her persona?


At the same time, that persona might have been what prompted such an oddly erratic career. She could not only overwhelm the scripted role, she could overwhelm the film itself, as Sophie Gilbert outlined in a marvelous obituary, poetically conveying how Bacall commandeered “How To Marry A Millionaire” from the titan likes of Monroe and Betty Grable. For if the persona was an invention of voice and expression, it was also fixed in her own personality, one that off camera could be outspoken and combative. If she felt ownership of a film, she’d take it, ensemble be damned. And maybe that’s why even as grand an actor as Gregory Peck couldn’t quite stand up to her torrent of magnetism. In “Designing Women” they are opposites that attract even if they never quite seem to transform into a match. In his review for The New York Times, Bosley Crowther called her “chilly and forbidding” which seems unfair. Perhaps Gregory, all due respect, just couldn’t cut it with such an awe-inspiring dame? And that brings me to the one guy who could cut it.

In an interview with Vanity Fair in 2011, Bacall said “My obit is going to be full of Bogart, I’m sure. I’ll never know if that’s true. If that’s the way it is, that’s the way it is.”That’s the way it is, Betty, and how could it not be? They were married for twelve years, until Bogart died from cancer, had two children, and in spite of their age difference, were by all accounts – hers, his, what you see unmistakably blossoming on screen in their eyes and demeanor – was true goddam love. And although she would go on to marry Jason Robards and have his son, and although she acted in a great many movies without him, it is the pairing of Bogey & Bacall that will forever be mentioned because it is utterly indelible, existing on a plain that makes the term “chemistry” seem laughably inadequate.

If it’s not the most famous, perhaps the most telling moment of their canon is “The Big Sleep” when they are seated at a gaming table. Hawks starts the scene in a wide shot, giving us our bearings, everyone else schmoozing and bustling all around our dear Bogey & Bacall. Then the camera, suddenly, presses in on our primary couple, shoving everyone else out of the frame and leaving them alone. In their movies it was them, no one and nothing else, the whole world existing as a platform for smoldering expressions and caustic banter.


The first time I visited my best friend in New York we went to the Museum of the Moving Image in Queens. One of the exhibits involved cuing up movie sequences in a sound booth and re-recording the dialogue of one character in your own voice. The “whistle” scene from “To Have and Have Not” was an option. I didn’t need to see the others. So I pitifully took the place of Bogart and for a few glorious moments I exchanged bon mots with Lauren fucking Bacall. Film is about fantasy and in my ongoing movie fandom I have never found a film more fantastical, and I’m certain I never will, because it’s a film of old Hollywood and Lauren Bacall, that roaring force of inalienable charisma, was in so many ways the last guard of its wondrous remnants, a Movie Star from an age when Movie Stars were all that equated to box office formula. And while friends know that Jean Harlow mania has gripped me in the last year and a half, it is an affliction tied directly to Lauren Bacall, my favorite Movie Star, now and forever.

In one of those eerie cosmic coincidences, she died the day after Robin Williams. This immediately and predictably led to online propagations of The Rule Of Three – stipulating that celebrity deaths come in threes. Who would be next, they wondered. I can only imagine Ms. Bacall would have rolled her eyes and offered a couple coarse words. All due respect to Mr. Williams, but slotting her into some Rule Of Three flow chart is sheer buffoonery. The title of her autobiography was “By Myself” for a reason.

Lauren Bacall stood alone.

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