Lauren Bacall was more than just an actress or a Hollywood icon. She was the epitome of “movie star” – a charismatic woman who was as interesting and fascinating off screen as she was on. Though not possessing of the widest range, Bacall imbued every character she played with characteristic humor, grace, and sarcasm.
Spotted by Howard Hawks’ wife, Slim, on the cover of Harper’s Bazaar, Bacall was a seeming overnight sensation. Her first film was Hawks’ 1944 noir classic To Have and Have Not. She was paired with Humphrey Bogart and the two fell in love and married, and their partnership was as legendary in real life as it was in the films. Bogart and Bacall made three more movies, including the classic The Big Sleep (1946, dir. Hawks). The marriage was tumultuous, fiery, and loving, but cruelly brief: Bogart died of cancer in 1957, leaving the actress a young widow and mother of two small children.
Because she allowed for her marriage to take precedence over her career. In an interview with Charlie Rose, she explained, “[he said] ‘if you want a career, a real career, then I’ll do everything I can for you, but I won’t marry you’…and I promised [Bogart] that our marriage would come first, and the the career, you know, would be second.”
Her promise guaranteed that her marriage was successful, but her career faltered because of her willingness to pass over work, especially roles that would require her to travel on location. By 1957, the actress was a symbol of the Golden Age of Hollywood, but she had to reassert herself as a living, vital actress. So, she plugged away making many films during the late 1950s and early 1960s, often slumming but ensuring that she was still on the minds of casting directors.
And though her film career stalled, she found a new career, reinventing herself as a Broadway star winning two Tonys for roles in Applause and The Woman of the Year. Renewed interest resulted in more roles in the 1980s, which eventually led to a late-career renaissance in the mid 1990s, thanks to her first Oscar nomination for Barbra Streisand’s 1996 romantic comedy The Mirror Has Two Faces. Since that role, the actress’s career was varied and interest that included more stage work, television, writing, and film, even working on a pair of movies with indie legend Lars von Trier and guest-voicing on Seth MacFarlane’s animated sitcom Family Guy.
Bacall was the last of the great Hollywood stars – a product of studio grooming and talent. Through hard work, toil, and tutelage, Bacall was able to forge a career as a screen siren. Whatever limitations she had, she worked around and exploited her assets: her wit, charm, husky voice, and beauty. Because of her onscreen insolence, she projected an aura of toughness, matching wits with her male leads which included Bogart, John Wayne, Gregory Peck, Rock Hudson, and Kirk Douglas. Off screen, the actress’s inability to remain quiet made her a popular talk show guest. She was almost pathologically candid, guarding Bogart’s Hollywood legend, while simultaneously slamming celebrity hypocrisy. When talking about Tom Cruise she groused, “Tom Cruise is a maniac. I can’t understand the way he conducts his life…When you talk about a great actor, you’re not talking about Tom Cruise.”
Though she was a legend, Bacall hated the title, equating it with being “past it.”She sniffed that the word legend connotes the past. She said of being called a legend, “No, I don’t like legend. I mean, I don’t like the category. And to begin with, to me, a legend is something that is not on the Earth, that is dead.”
And though she bristled at the sobriquet of film icon, work was a constant in her life. It was a constant in her life, and defined her life after her her marriages ended and her kids moved out of the house. It was her salvation, staving off feelings of loneliness (yes, even goddesses get lonely). Of work she wrote, “You work because you love it, because you want to and because you need to…It meant independence and being on my way to dream fulfillment.”
And because she was so strong and healthy (Entertainment Weekly wrote that because of her enduring strength and good health, folks thought she’d be around forever), she was able to work for a very long time, staving off retirement. “Why is it the American dream to work really hard when you are young so you can retire early?” she once asked. “Why can’t it be that you work for the love of it – or to get better at it?”
And she did get better. As she settled into character parts, she was freed from the yoke of “leading lady” status. She was cast as eccentrics, world weary divas, intimidating dames. She was able to forgo the glamour of her Golden Age days and indulge in some hammy scene-stealing in her old age. In her later films like Misery, My Fellow Americans, The Mirror Has Two Faces, Diamonds or Birth she would march through her scenes, spitting out quips and one-liners with zeal and scene-chewing abandon. And while these parts weren’t diverse, nor did they tax her acting muscles, they felt tailor-made for the actress, and she was a consummate pro lending the films gravitas and biting humor with her presence. Once she was let go of the albatross of fashion plate, audiences discovered something appealing and wonderful about Lauren Bacall: along with being gorgeous, she was also a fantastic comedienne with what Jack Benny called “perfect timing.”
When (finally) honored by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences with an honorary Oscar, the tribute read, “Bacall has amassed 50 film credits and maintained iconic status as the epitome of Hollywood glamour. In 1996, 52 years after making her screen debut, she was an Oscar nominee for her supporting role in Barbra Streisand’s The Mirror Has Two Faces. That sultry voice, sly sophistication and skill with sparring dialogue seem undiminished six decades into her career.