Lauren Bacall, 1924–2014: How a Hollywood Construct Became a Magnetic Screen Presence

Publicity photo of American actress Lauren Bacall. ca.1945.
Publicity photo of American actress Lauren Bacall. ca.1945.

You don’t forget the first time you saw Lauren Bacall. I certainly didn’t. It was on TV, after school, watching To Have and Have Not, her screen debut against her future husband, Humphrey Bogart. Even I, a fairly ordinary teen with a copy of the Sports Illustrated Swimsuit Calendar on his wall, could see that here was something else: a woman who, fully clothed, exuded a kind of sex appeal that was like nothing my young eyes had ever seen. It was not just her unbelievable beauty — which, with that wide mouth and those sharp, knowing eyes, was not a “classical” one, whatever that means — but her low, seductive voice, and her swagger, not to mention her way around a double entendre. And she barely cracked a smile. When she did, she looked like she could eat you alive.

It was all, of course, a construct, and a glance at the history of how Betty Perske became Lauren Bacall, who died yesterday at the age of 89, is to take a crash course in Dream Factory mechanics, and in the ways that powerful men conjured up pop fantasies of femininity. That low, wise-beyond-its-years, seductive voice itself came about, as Hollywood lore has it, from some advice director Howard Hawks gave her. Here’s how Bacall tells it in her 1979 memoir By Myself: “He wanted me to drive into the hills, find some quiet spot, and read aloud. He felt it most important to keep the voice in a low register. Mine started off low, but what Howard didn’t like and explained to me was, ‘If you notice, Betty, when a woman gets excited or emotional she tends to raise her voice. Now, there is nothing more unattractive than screeching. I want you to train your voice in such a way that even if you have a scene like that your voice will remain low.’ I found a spot on Mulholland Drive and proceeded to read The Robe aloud, keeping my voice lower and louder than normal. If anyone had ever passed by, they would have found me a candidate for the asylum. Who sat on mountaintops in cars reading books aloud to the canyons?” (We should not go too far down the double-standard rabbit hole here, though: Hawks also claimed that this was a method he had learned from the great man’s man Walter Huston, who had used it to change the quality of his own voice. Hollywood was expert at creating not just illusions of femininity, but of masculinity as well.)

But it was more than the voice. It was the attitude. Well, that was a construct, too. In the interview book Hawks on Hawks, the director told Joseph McBride that Bacall would find herself alone at the end of parties at his house. He was puzzled that no man would ever offer to drive her home. “I don’t do too well with men,” she told him. “What do you do, are you nice to ’em?” “Nice as I can be.” So he suggested that she start “insulting” them. The next time, she got a ride home. “What happened?” Hawks asked. “Oh, I insulted the man … I asked him where he got his tie. He said, ‘What do you want to know for?’ And I said, ‘So I can tell people not to go there.’” “Who’s the man?” Hawks asked. “Clark Gable.” Later, Hawks asked screenwriter Jules Furthman, “Do you suppose we could make a girl who is insolent, as insolent as Bogart, who insults people, who grins when she does it, and people like it?” It worked. It felt new then, but there was a certain timelessness to it, too; Marlene Dietrich came up to Hawks after one screening of To Have and Have Not and said, “You know, that’s me about 20 years ago.”

The other man who helped define Bacall’s persona in those early years was, obviously, not just her great lover, but also her great foil. Here’s where it gets really interesting: Watching Bogart and Bacall opposite each other, you realize that she’s the harder character. She’s got grace, smarts, and sass, but also a toughness that he can’t quite reach. Bogart’s characters were hard-boiled, edging into crusty cynicism; the world is beyond hope for them. Bacall’s demeanor suggested a happier median, or at least a less hopeless one. Hey, I’ve figured a way through this mess, she seems to say. You can, too, tough guy. That’s why, quite apart from the chemistry, they made such a good team, cutting through the bullshit of most romantic subplots. When they’re onscreen together, all you care about is them.

Bacall herself said that it would be impossible for anyone to talk about her without talking about Bogart, which was true, but only to a point. Even before his death in 1957, she had successfully branched out on her own as an actor. And while the circumstances of her initial appearances might have focused on her sex appeal and allure, as her career developed, her demeanor began to speak of independence and intelligence.

Her persona may have fit noir best, but she brought it with her to different genres, sometimes with unusual results. When she found the right part, she brought a graceful toughness to it, usually in contrast to what was happening around her. In Jean Negulesco’s bubbly color comedy How to Marry a Millionaire, she plays one of three girls (alongside Marilyn Monroe and Betty Grable) who get a fancy New York apartment in an attempt to land a rich husband. Bacall was eight years younger than Grable and only two years older than Monroe, but she comes across as the older, wiser, smarter one. Early on, as they lounge around their (amazing, impossible) terrace, her character is like a gangland leader: She paces around Monroe and Grable, cigarette in hand, strategizing about wooing wealthy men. “Let’s get a little organization into this marriage caper — class address, class background, class characters … Nothing under six figures a year …” But it’s not a gangland shtick she’s doing. She still has elegance, beauty, authority. The movie is pure froth, but she transcends the levity and gives it a delectable edge.

Similarly, in Douglas Sirk’s wild, wonderful Written on the Wind, Bacall’s cool keeps the melodrama grounded. Playing an assistant who winds up marrying drunk playboy Robert Stack, even as she’s coveted by a lovelorn Rock Hudson (who is in turn pursued by Stack’s nymphomaniac sister Dorothy Malone), Bacall is in many ways the film’s real hero. She may be an object of desire, but she’s also the one character who feels like a real person cast amid this brightly colored, larger-than-life Sirkian farrago. Her noirish reserve sells the film’s heightened emotions and style.

All the above suggests that Bacall didn’t have a lot of range, but that’s not true. She had real comedy chops as well. Her performance in Robert Altman’s little-seen political satire H.E.A.L.T.H., as an 83-year-old competing for the presidency of a national healthy-living organization, is hilarious: Her character, who sometimes becomes totally comatose, contends that the secret to her long life is her virginity. Even in the wild, surreal stew of Altman’s multi-character allegory, she stands out.

Bacall kept working into her later years. As an actress from Hollywood’s Golden Age who had started early (she was 19 when she was cast in To Have and Have Not), she was young enough to become a kind of working living legend, who still had the chops to take on real roles, not just getting carted out for cursory “special appearances.” And so, she did everything from Rob Reiner’s Misery to Lars von Trier’s Dogville to Barbra Streisand’s The Mirror Has Two Faces (for which she was nominated for an Oscar) to Family Guy, even as she also played the role of keeper of Bogart’s legacy and ambassador to the Hollywood past.

And while her screen presence might have started out as a construct — a series of carefully conceived postures struck by a shy girl suddenly thrust onto the silver screen — she came to fully own them. Earlier this year, she did the voice of a stern orphanage doyenne in the English-language version of the French animated film Ernest & Celestine. And there was that unmistakable Bacall voice again — older, of course, and this time used to create a kind of gentle menace, but still with a hint of mystery to it.

Lauren Bacall: From Construct to Screen Presence