Her résumé read “actress,” but Lauren Bacall was first and foremost a Hollywood movie star.
Arriving in L.A. with her mother in 1942 and before speaking a line on film, the young New York model perfected the smoky, sexy voice that would become her trademark. On her own, Bacall, who died Aug. 12, figured out how to plant her chin against her long neck, look upward into the camera with those heavy-lidded eyes, and give what became known simply as “The Look.”
Operating on equal parts talent and instinct - and assisted by a $100-a-week contract from producer Howard Hawks – Bacall positioned herself as Hollywood’s Next Big Thing, then launched herself on a career that spanned eight decades. In the months before she died, she was reportedly planning to play a role in Trouble Is My Business, a film noir inspired by the classic movies Bacall made in the 1940s with the love of her life, Humphrey Bogart.
She was 18 when she set foot on the set of her first film, To Have and Have Not, and there to greet her was her costar, the very famous and quite married Bogart. She was 19; he was 44. The men in the audience melted when she turned to Bogart and cooed:
Bogart was a goner, too. Hawks later said that Bogie fell in love with the strong-willed, world-wise character Bacall played, “so she had to keep playing it the rest of her life.”
The persona selection served her well. Bacall’s tough-girl act saw her through a decade’s worth of gritty dramas, including four with Bogart, whom she married in 1945. Films like The Big Sleep (1945), Key Largo (1948) and Young Man With a Horn (1950) cemented Bacall as the first lady of rain-swept streets, smoke-filled speakeasies and body-choked gutters.
After her beloved Bogie died in 1957, she had a quick fling with Frank Sinatra (then again, didn’t everybody?). In 1961 she married another gruff actor, Jason Robards Jr., but it appeared the married-to-a-hard-drinking-tough-guy thing was wearing thin. When they divorced in 1969, she attributed it to Robards’ alcoholism.
Good roles began to dry up for Bacall in the 1950s, and she turned to the New York stage, where over the next two decades she starred in four plays and won two Tony Awards. When she made a movie, it was usually a star-studded vehicle like Sex and the Single Girl (1964) or Murder on the Orient Express (1974). Whether she worked a lot or a little, though, Lauren Bacall’s star status remained utterly untarnished. Nominated just once for an acting Oscar (The Mirror Has Two Faces in 1996, directed by Barbra Streisand), she was finally presented with an honorary statuette in 2009.
“I’ve been very lucky in my life,” the 84-year-old Bacall told the Academy. “Probably luckier than I deserve.
“I feel very grateful that I’m alive … I’m here to stay, and you’d better get used to the idea.”
As usual, Lauren Bacall was right. She’s here to stay.
Photo: Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images
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