Lauren Bacall is one of the most complicated screen goddesses: she’s gorgeous, with a smoldering screen presence, yet isn’t the most natural actresses on the silver screen; however, when given a good script and a strong director, she can be very appealing, even superb – especially when she’s cast in a comedic role.
At her early peak in the 1940s, she was paired with her husband Humphrey Bogart in four classic films: To Have and Have Not, The Big Sleep, Key Largo, and Dark Passage. Their marriage was legendary, and the two shared a fantastic on-screen chemistry. Because Bogart’s career was so much brighter than her’s, Bacall stepped aside to raise his children, making the occasional film – none that taxed her talents.After Bogart’s early death, Bacall’s film career was left in a terrible state – most of her films of the 1960s and 1970s were of little note. She moved from one b-film to another. By the mid 70s, she turned to Broadway and finally found unequivocal success as a musical theater comedienne, winning a pair of Tonys for Applause and Woman of the Year. By this time her screen persona went through a third and final stage: a worldly, salty grande dame. At this point, she also became known as a pop culture legend and icon, and pretty much rode this to the present day – that doesn’t mean she isn’t a good actress. What is interesting is that in her later period – the 1980s to the present day – she gave some of her most complex and interesting performances, finally scoring an Oscar nomination in 1996 as Barbra Streisand’s fire-breathing mother in The Mirror Has Two Faces. She also gave solid turns in Lars Von Trier’s Dogville and Manderlay.
Along with being a good actress, Bacall also found a successful career as a writer, penning two best-selling memoirs, including the classic By Myself, which won the National Book Award in 1980. As seen with her writing, she’s a proven raconteur and a witty storyteller. Whenever she appears on talk shows, she’s a canny and funny guest, with a quick quip, told in her basso profundo growl.
Despite all the turns in her career, one thing that remains is Bacall’s glamor – from her debut in 1944 in To Have and Have Not to her turn as Nicole Kidman’s elegant mother in 2004’s Birth, her beauty and allure is undiminished.
To Have and Have Not (1944) – A very loose adaptation of Ernest Hemingway’s novel, Bacall’s first film is probably one of the most arresting film debuts in movie history. As Slim Browning, Bacall – then only 19 – conveys the gravitas and wisdom of a woman twice her age. She purrs her lines in a rumbling growl, and is a blinding screen presence with her slant-eyed feline grace and beauty. This is the first of the iconic pairing of Bacall and her husband Humphrey Bogart, and featured her legendary line, “You know how to whistle, don’t you, Steve? You just put your lips together and blow.”
The Big Sleep (1946) – The second pairing of Bogie and Bacall is their strongest film together. Inspired by Raymond Chandler’s novel, the twisting and convoluted plot really takes a back seat to the sparkling dialogue and incandescent interplay between Bacall and Bogart. The script is full of witty scenes between the two stars – surprisingly sexual given the influence of the Hays Code and its stamp of censorship on films in the 1940s. There’s a fantastic scene using sexual wordplay in reference to horse racing that’s become a classic, and worth the price of admission on its own.
Dark Passage (1947) – The third in the four films Bacall starred in with her husband, is probably the weakest; it’s still a great film, despite some of its weaknesses. The most memorable aspect of this film is that the story is shown through the eyes of Bogart’s protagonist. The story – a bit far-fetched – has Bogart as a man on the run after being jailed for killing his wife, who has his looks altered by plastic surgery. The film coasts on the chemistry and excellent work of its two stars.
Key Largo (1948) – The final pairing of Bogie and Bacall has her playing the devoted daughter-in-law of hotelier Lionel Barrymore, who is held hostage with Bogart at the hands of a band of gangsters, headed by an excellent Edward G. Robinson. A raging hurricane provides an exciting backdrop for the plot that has Bogart trading barbs and matching wits with Robinson. Bacall’s role, while good, is overshadowed a bit by the combined talent of Bogart, Robinson, Barrymore and an Oscar-winning Claire Trevor as a boozy lush.
How to Marry a Millionaire (1953) – Bacall stars with Marilyn Monroe and Betty Grable – the three women are broke models who go in together on a glamorous Manhattan apartment to catch rich men. This dated, fluffy comedy benefits greatly from the brilliant performance of Monroe as the near-sighted dingaling who has a penchant for walking into the furniture. Bacall’s a more stern and severe presence, though she handily holds her own against Monroe with a nifty comic performance of her own, showing a new hilarious side of the actress that will be put to better use later in her career. The script is woefully ridiculous in its antiquated sexual politics, but Bacall, Monroe, and Grable make a great team.
Designing Woman (1957) – Another comic home run for Bacall – this time made all the more poignant because Bogart was dying at the time. Bacall is teamed with a stiff Gregory Peck – the two play a couple who marry after a whirlwind romance. He’s a sports writer, she’s a fashion designer – the two have markedly different worlds, his gritty and earthy, her’s sophisticated and elegant. This film looks like it had Spencer Tracy and Katherine Hepburn in mind: an amusing film that boasts a hilarious performance by Bacall, who carries the film and her costars on her shoulders.
Sex and the Single Girl (1964) – This film is a bright spot in Bacall’s mainlining film career during the 60s. Based on Helen Gurley Brown’s best seller, Bacall’s well matched with Henry Fonda, as the two legends play an Albee-esque couple who war throughout the film. The star, Natalie Wood is very pretty, but is bland and is put in the shade by the loud and raucous Fonda and Bacall.
Murder on the Orient Express (1974) – One of the best adaptations of an Agatha Christie novel, with an all-star cast that includes Albert Finney as the brilliant sleuth, Hercule Poirot, Michael York, Sean Connery, John Gielgud, Vanessa Redgrave, Anthony Perkins, Wendy Hiller, Bacall, and an Oscar-winning Ingrid Bergman. Bacall’s performance is showy and flamboyant – not her most subtle. In fact, it’s one of her first “grande lady” roles that would become a trademark of her career later. While her company is a starry group, Bacall makes her mark, barking out her lines and chewing scenery with a ravenous abandon.
The Shootist (1976) – John Wayne’s final film is a gentle, bruised elegy to the Western. Bacall’s a prim, schoolmarmish widow who takes in Wayne. His somewhat unsavory lifestyle is in stark contrast to her starched moral priggishness, but the two become fast friends. In fact, in real life Bacall and Wayne forged a lovely friendship despite her staunch liberalism and his entrenched conservatism. It’s a slight film, but a sentimental one with lots of nostalgia factor: Wayne, Bacall, and Jimmy Stewart all are film legends of Hollywood’s Golden Age, and represent three of its brightest stars – it’s interesting seeing them in this post-modern Western film.
The Fan (1981) – This is a terrible film. A campy slasher pic with Bacall playing a version of herself, a victim of an obsessed fan who will kill and murder anyone who gets in his way. Despite this being a gruesome messy cheapie, Bacall does a lot with her thinly-drawn role. She injects this tired film with humor and pathos and manages to inject her scenes with much-needed elegance – she’s the only virtue in this mess of a film.
The Portrait (1993) – Bacall is paired up with Gregory Peck again in this TV movie about an aging couple and their adult daughter. This is a pale imitation of On Golden Pond – which had real-life father-daughter costars, Henry Fonda and Jane Fonda, while this film has Peck teamed with his daughter Ceilia. But it’s worth it just to see Peck and Bacall conjure their movie magic together.
A Foreign Field (1993) – Another excellent later performance by Bacall for television. She plays an American widow who travels to France to look for the grave of her brother who died in WWII. Bacall gives a rueful, yet funny performance in this lovely, touching film with a great cast of legends that includes Alec Guinness, Geraldine Chaplin, Edward Herrmann, Leo McKern, John Randolph, and French New Wave icon Jeanne Moreau.
The Mirror Has Two Faces (1996) – Bacall’s sole Oscar nomination came from this romantic comedy about a college professor (Barbra Streisand, who directed the film) who lives with her domineering and bullying mother (Bacall). The film is a supposed exploration of beauty, vanity, and self-esteem, and while a work of light-as-air fluff, benefits greatly from a hilarious and touching performance by Bacall, who struts through the film providing great moments of comedy and pathos as a gorgeous, but aged beauty who takes out her insecurity on her daughter. Not a great film by any means, but Streisand gives her onscreen mom some great moments – especially an all-night heart-to-heart that has some of Bacall’s best acting in her career.
Birth (2004) – Bacall gets to play Nicole Kiman’s mother in this ponderous, strange, and disturbing drama-thriller about a beautiful young woman (Kidman) who’s dead husband may have been reincarnated as a little boy. The movie’s dark, soporific tone feels thick and heavy, but Bacall gets to cut through the cinematic velvet with her trademark withering wit and biting delivery.
By Myself (1980) – Bacall proves to be an excellent scribe in this engaging memoir about her career and marriage to Humphrey Bogart. Her story is a classic, almost-cliched tale of a young girl who makes something of herself and becomes a big star. She writes with a disarming frankness and candor, never glossing over any debits in her personality, nor in her career. She treats the moments with Bogart beautifully. And as interesting as her movie star chapters are, it’s the sections dealing with her childhood that resonate. That Lauren Bacall (nee Betty Perske) is a resourceful, ambitious and talented young lady who is happy to work hard to achieve her goals. Along the way to becoming a legend, Bacall amasses a vast collection of famous superstars as close buds like Judy Garland, Noel Coward, Slim Hawks, Katherine Hepburn, Spencer Tracy – and in the 2005 edition, she gives a sad update that has most of them die of old age.
Now (1994) – Her sequel to her memoirs is an interesting slim volume that has Bacall give her readers a summary of how things have been going in the 15 years since By Myself. This book is only slightly less interesting because her career was in a bit of a rut in the 80s, but her stories are still well-written, and even when she writes of mundane topics like her children, or vacationing in France, she still manages to charm with her sharp-eyed wit and razor-sharp humor.
Applause: Original 1970 Broadway Cast (1970) – Bacall’s triumphant turn on Broadway as Margo Channing in the musical version of All About Eve is an enjoyable, if slightly-dated romp. Betty Comden and Adoph Green wrote the book – and it’s not their best work; Lee Adams and Charles Strouse put together a solid musical – though the music feels a bit trapped by its 70s arrangements. Bacall isn’t a natural singer, but is a musical comedienne in much the same way Elaine Stritch is, and can sell a song in a similar fashion. It’s worth searching some of these musical numbers on YouTube to see Bacall hoof it admirably with dancers half her age, and do so with aplomb.