Wednesday, August 13, 2014

The Late Great Lauren Bacall, Hollywood's Queen of Cool

There is perhaps no Hollywood romance more legendary than that of Lauren Bacall and Humphrey Bogart. Even though the majority of Mr. Bogart's career unfolded before he met Miss Bacall and the majority of her career unfolded after his death from oesophageal cancer in 1957, to this day it is difficult to think of one without thinking of the other. As legendary as Bogie and Bacall were together, however, Lauren Bacall was very much an actress in her own right. Glamorous and mysterious, she was very much Hollywood's Queen of Cool. What is more, she was capable of delivering impeccable performances in nearly any role. Almost seventy years after the release of her first film (To Have and Have Not in 1944) Miss Bacall has remained a name easily recognised by the average person. Sadly, Lauren Bacall died yesterday at age 89 from a stroke.

Lauren Bacall was born Betty Joan Perske on 16 September 1924 in The Bronx, New York. Her parents,  Natalie (née Weinstein-Bacal) and William Perske, divorced when she was five years old. Her mother would take the surname "Bacall" following the divorce. While she would continue to be called "Betty" for the rest of her life (even after director Howard Hawks changed her stage name to "Lauren"), she took her mother's surname of "Bacall".  Betty Bacall was fascinated by the theatre from a very young age. She was particularly a fan of both Bette Davis and Leslie Howard.

At age 16 Betty Bacall took up modelling, getting jobs with both dress manufacturer David Crystal and evening gown maker Sam Friedlander. She also served as an usherette at Broadway theatres and worked at the Stage Door Canteen. She studied acting at the American Academy of Dramatic Arts, where Kirk Douglas numbered among her classmates. Miss Bacall made her Broadway debut in a walk on role in Johnny 2 X 4 in 1942. In July 1942 in the magazine Esquire drama critic George Jean Nathan named her "the prettiest theatre usher—the tall slender blonde in the St. James Theatre right aisle, during the Gilbert & Sullivan engagement". She appeared in a production of Franklin Street, directed by George S. Kaufman, later in 1942.

It would be an encounter with Nicolas de Gunzburg, an editor at Harper's Bazaar, that would change her life forever. It led to a full colour photo of Betty Bacall standing in front of a door, the glazed glass window of which read ""American Red Cross" and "Blood Donor Service". The photo appeared on the cover of the March 1943 issue of Harper's Bazaar. Because of the magazine cover it was not long before Hollywood came calling. Some fairly well known Hollywood personages expressed interest in Betty Bacall, among them Howard Hawks (at the insistence of his wife Slim Hawks), Howard Hughes, and David O. Selznick. Ultimately Miss Bacall signed a seven year contract with Howard Hawks, and she and her mother left New York City for Hollywood.

It was Howard Hawks and his wife Slim who essentially shaped the image of "Lauren Bacall". Indeed, it was Mr. Hawks who gave Betty Bacall the stage name "Lauren", even though she would continue to known as "Betty" to her friends and acquaintances. Mr. Hawks trained Miss Bacall to lower her voice and make it deeper. Miss Bacall was also taught all about fashion and trained in acting, singing, and so on.

Ultimately Lauren Bacall would make her film debut in Howard Hawks' film To Have and Have Not (1944). It would be a life changing experience for Miss Bacall in more ways than one. The role of Marie "Slim" Browning in the film would transform Miss Bacall into a star over night. She also developed a romance with Humphrey Bogart. It was the first and last time Mr. Bogart ever had an affair with one of his leading ladies. With Mr. Bogart trapped in an unhappy marriage, the couple kept their relationship discreet, meeting secretly and writing letters when they are were apart. Torn between his love for Miss Bacall and his commitment to his marriage, Humphrey Bogart and his wife divorced in 1945. Lauren Bacall and Humphrey Bogart were married that same year. They remained married until his death in 1957. While "Bogie and Bacall" would become the stuff of legends, Lauren Bacall would have a brief relationship with Frank Sinatra and was married to Jason Robards from 1961 to 1969. Howard Hawks did not particularly approved of Lauren Bacall and Humphrey Bogart's relationship, and the director and actress eventually parted ways.

While To Have and Have Not made Lauren Bacall a star, her next film to be released seriously damaged her career. Lauren Bacall was not particularly enthusiastic about Confidential Agent (1945). She did not like the script and thought she had been miscast. Worse yet, director Herman Shumlin, who had only directed one previous film (although he had considerable experience on Broadway), offered her nothing in the way of guidance. Ultimately her fears about Confidential Agent proved justified.  Confidential Agent received  negative reviews, with Miss Bacall's performance often singled out for criticism.

Fortunately Miss Bacall's career would be saved by another film in which she appeared with Humphrey Bogart. The Big Sleep (1946), based on Raymond Chandler's novel of the same name, had actually been shot before Confidential Agent. With World War II coming to an end Warner Bros. elected to delay the release of The Big Sleep so that they could release their various films related to the war first. In the meantime To Have and Have Not became a veritable phenomenon. Various scenes in The Big Sleep were then reshot to take advantage of the chemistry between Lauren Bacall and Humphrey Bogart. While many critics complained that the film's plot was confusing, Miss Bacall received good notices for her performance as Vivian Sternwood Rutledge. The 1945 cut of the film would be released in 1997, when it once more received good notices from critics. The Big Sleep was followed by two more films with Humphrey Bogart. Dark Passage (1947) received mixed reviews, but did well at the box office. It is now regarded as a classic. Key Largo (1948) received largely positive reviews and also did very well at the box office. It too is regarded as a classic.

Lauren Bacall would finish out the Forties appearing in the films Young Man with a Horn (1950)  and Bright Leaf (1950). Her career slowed in the Fifties. From 1951 to 1952 Miss Bacall co-starred with Humphrey Bogart in the syndicated radio show Bold Venture. In 1953 she appeared in her first film in three years, the classic comedy How to Marry a Millionaire. The remainder of the Fifties saw Lauren Bacall appear in the films Woman's World (1954), The Cobweb (1955), Blood Alley (1955), Written on the Wind (1956), Designing Woman (1957), The Gift of Love (1958), and North West Frontier (1959). Miss Bacall had a cameo in the film Patterns (1956). She made her television debut in an adaptation of The Petrified Forest that appeared on Producer's Showcase. She guest starred on  Ford Star Jubilee and played Elvira in a television adaptation of Blithe Spirit. She finished the Fifties appearing on Broadway in Goodbye, Charlie. In the Sixties she appeared on Broadway in Cactus Flower.

In the Sixties and Seventies Lauren Bacall's film career would slow even further. During the two decades she appeared in the films Shock Treatment (1964), Sex and the Single Girl (1964), Harper (1966), Murder on the Orient Express (1974), The Shootist (1976), and HealtH (1980). On television she guest starred on the shows The DuPont Show of the Week, Dr. Kildare, Mr. Broadway, Bob Hope Presents the Chrysler Theatre, and The Rockford Files. She appeared in a 1973 television production of Applause and the TV movie Perfect Gentlemen. She appeared on Broadway in Applause, for which she won a Tony Award. Lauren Bacall would also appear in the London production of Applause on the West End.

In the Eighties Miss Bacall appeared in the movies The Fan (1981), Appointment with Death (1988), Mr. North (1988). Tree of Hands (1988), and Misery (1990). She appeared in the TV films Dinner at Eight and A Little Piece of Sunshine. She appeared on Broadway in Woman of the Year, for which she received another Tony Award.

The Nineties would see Lauren Bacall make more films than she had since the Fifties. She not only received praise from critics for her performance in The Mirror Has Two Faces (1996), but also received a nomination for the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress. She also appeared in the films A Star for Two (1991), All I Want for Christmas (1991), Prêt-à-Porter (1994), The Mirror Has Two Faces (1996), My Fellow Americans (1996), Le jour et la nuit (1997), Diamonds (1999), The Venice Project (1999), and Presence of Mind (1999). She appeared on television in the TV movies The Portrait, From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler, and Too Rich: The Secret Life of Doris Duke. She guest starred The General Motors Playwrights Theatre, Great Performances, and Chicago Hope. She appeared on Broadway in a revival of Waiting in the Wings

From the Naughts into the Teens Lauren Bacall appeared in the films Dogville (2003), Amália Traïda (2004), Birth (2004), These Foolish Things (2005), Manderlay (2005), The Walker (2007), Eve (2008),  Wide Blue Yonder (2010), and The Forger (2012). She provided the voice of the Witch of the Waste in Howl's Moving Castle (2004).  On television  she guest starred on The Sopranos and she provided a guest voice on Family Guy.

Perhaps no other actress ever had as spectacular a debut as Lauren Bacall. Indeed, for many her most iconic scene occurred in her very first film, the scene in To Have or Have Not in which her character (Slim) tells Mr. Bogart's character (Steve), "You know how to whistle, don’t you, Steve? You just put your lips together and blow.” No other scene in her career would match the electricity of that one scene. Indeed, only a few other scenes in  any other classic film match the electricity in that scene. Quite simply, it was one of the most influential scenes in the history of Hollywood film making.

As important as that scene was to Miss Bacall's career and legend, however, it is important to realise that she should never be defined by it alone. Lauren Bacall was always much more than Humphrey Bogart's co-star and eventually his wife. She was a talent and star all her own. Lauren Bacall had a rare sort of glamour not seen in very many actresses of the time and seen even more rarely now. Very few of her contemporaries quite had her her mixture of class, independence, intelligence, wit, honesty, and sex appeal. In an era that produced many actresses who portrayed strong, independent women, Lauren Bacall ranked among the very best at doing so.

While the image most people have of Lauren Bacall remains that of Slim in To Have or Have Not or Vivian in The Big Sleep, she was more than capable of playing other, different sorts of characters. Beyond being sharp as a knife and tough as nails, Schatze Page in How to Marry a Millionaire was about as far from Slim or Vivian as one could get. a gold digger on the look out for another (preferably rich) husband. In Applause Lauren Bacall got the chance to play a role originated by her idol Bette Davis in All About Eve, Margo Channing. Margo Channing was bright, witty, and sharp tongued. She was also having to come to grips with ageing in a business where youth is a highly valued commodity. Arguably some of Lauren Bacall's best roles came when she was older, and they were not always in her better known films. While her performance as domineering mother Hannah Morgan in The Mirror Has Two Faces is often acknowledged, one rarely hears about good she was as a somewhat nicer maternal figure in All I Want for Christmas (1991), playing grandmother Lillian Brooks. Confidential Agent aside, Lauren Bacall had a long track record of delivering great performances playing a variety of characters.

It has been nearly seventy years since Lauren Bacall made her screen debut in To Have and Have Not. In that time she has remained a name familiar not just to classic film buffs, but to the average person as well. Through the years she has remained as recognisable as any current prime time TV star. The reason is quite simply that she was a singular performer, truly one of a kind. Even in the Golden Age of Hollywood few actresses could match Lauren Bacall when it came to her combination of glamour, intelligence, wit, independence, and sex appeal.  There will probably never be another one like her.

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