Friday, August 15


Let's not think of this as your standard obit.  First of all, I am leaving off the RIP in the heading because I'm not sure Bacall can rest in peace.  My guess is it's not in her DNA.  She was restless, haughty, opinionated, frequently unkind, angry and completely full of herself.  She was never soft, certainly not in real life, and there aren't too many film roles that showed a sweet-natured side either.

She was part of a breed of Hollywood icons from the golden years.  And while I loved nearly all of her films and her in them, most of that iconic stuff comes from an 11-year stint as Mrs. Humphrey Bogart rather than from anything she accomplished in Hollywood.  She always said that she was a bit ill-at-ease with the legend talk, but don't you believe it.  I'm guessing there were very damned few who doubted they were in the presence of royalty when she swept into a room.  They made the word diva for Bacall.

I said rather than anything she accomplished in Hollywood because she sureinthehell wowed 'em on Broadway in Tony-winning performances in Applause (Bacall as Margo Channing is without question a genius blending of actress to role) and Woman of the Year.  Let's not forget those roles in films were done by Bette Davis and Katharine Hepburn, neither a shrinking violet... nor are those characters... nor was Bacall.

But we're getting ahead of ourselves.  Born in New York in 1924, her adored father left when she was quite young and the hurt that caused may have given birth to her lifetime anger.  She did, however, adore her mother with whom she was always close.  Mama probably saw the softer side of her daughter that anyone ever saw.

At first she wanted to be a dancer but that fell by the wayside when she discovered acting.  She did a bit of off-Broadway stuff and some modeling.  It was a Harper's Bazaar magazine cover that attracted the attention of Slim Hawks, the then-wife of bigtime Hollywood director, Howard Hawks.  Slim, who didn't look unlike Bacall, thought she would be perfect as the romantic interest for Humphrey Bogart in her husband's next film, To Have and Have Not (1944).

I thought her early film career was dazzling and I saw everything she ever did in the 1940s and 50s.  THAHN started it all.  It concerned an American expatriate in Martinique who uses his boat to help Resistance people during WWII.  It was a total good time just on that level but it became famous for several other reasons.  One was simply her electric screen presence... that voice, her movements, her sassiness and all the rest. This was a babe and even on screen she seemed to put lead in Bogart's pencil (uh, I mean... I'm jus' sayin'). 

Secondly, she had what they called the look... she would drop her head down and look out from under her forehead.   She always cracked up at the look because she said it was done only because she was so nervous and keeping her head down kept it from shaking.   A famous line was dished out by her character, Slim.  As she stood caressing a doorway while advising Bogart's character how he could get a hold of her again... You know how to whistle, Steve, don't you.  You just put your lips together... and blow.  Oh my, will somebody fan me?  Next was that sexy warbling of the song How Little We Know (did she do her own singing, was it another woman or was it Andy Williams)?  Lastly, oh come on, who could ever forget that slinky walk out of the club at the end of the film?  Few would ever have a film debut as talked-about as this one.

By the time their next film together was released, 1946s The Big Sleep, they were married. Considered one of the best of all film noirs, it was a mysterious, murky, delicious and compelling private detective drama about a rich man who wants to find out more about the crowd his spoiled daughter is hanging out with.  Bacall plays the imperious older sister.  Her verbal sparring with Bogie is the stuff of legendary writing.

By most accounts the Bogart-Bacall marriage was an ideal one.  Without a doubt she has spent a lifetime keeping the flames  burning about that union, hoping, no doubt, we'd be a bit reminded of Romeo and Juliet.  Yet, years ago I read a book by Verita Thompson who stated she had a long affair with Bogart that started before his marriage to Bacall and lasted throughout most of Bacall years.  At the time of the book's publication there were reports that she was furious but she apparently did nothing substantial to refute it.

Her next two pictures with Bogart were also film noirs.  The less successful of the two, 1947s Dark Passage is more memorable for an Agnes Moorehead character but 1948s Key Largo was a gem.  It concerned a war veteran who visits his dead friend's family's hotel and finds Edward G. Robinson and fellow gangsters running things.
Neither of these films provided showy Bacall parts; the second two films weren't as successful as the first two.  Bogie and Bacall would not work together again.

She was the lesbian wife of Kirk Douglas in 1950s Young Man with a Horn.  The two had been friends since their earlier New York days.  Her work in 1953s How to Marry a Millionaire was rather striking and more than held her own with Marilyn Monroe and Betty Grable... and how easy could that have been.  Despite the hair-brained and overworked plot of three roommates looking for rich husbands, the film was a major success.  Wow, Bacall could shine without Bogart.  Besides, despite third-billing, Bacall actually had the lead role.

I bloody loved her opposite John Wayne in 1955s Blood Alley about ferrying Chinese refugees down a treacherous waterway and out of Shanghai.   It was just the kind of adventure this 11-year old ate up.  Despite their vast political differences, Wayne and Bacall got on quite well... so well, in fact, that he asked for her as his leading lady in his final film, 1976s The Shootist.  I loved her work in the film and thought they were quite the ideal screen team.

A monster success came in 1956 in Douglas Sirk's superb soaper, Written on the Wind, about the excesses of a rich oil family.  I think I saw it three or four times on its intial release and a number of times since.  Oddly, co-stars Robert Stack and Dorothy Malone (she would win an Oscar) far outshone Bacall and Rock Hudson.

With a slight bow to her performance in To Have and Have Not, I think her best work was opposite her pal Gregory Peck in 1957's Designing Woman, a comedy about the two different worlds of a newly-wedded fashion designer and sports reporter.  Neither actor is particularly known for comedies but their work here was the berries.  For her, it's a credit to her professionalism because this is the film she was making when Bogart died and he had been quite sick for some time beforehand.  Designing Woman is the first picture we saw Bacall as a blonde, a look she would more or less keep for the remainder of her life.

In 1959 she made Flame Over India (also known as North West Frontier) in which she helped protect a young prince on a long train trip through hostile territory, the enemy wanting to kidnap the boy.  Despite my liking this adventure film and Bacall doing capable work, the project seemed an odd choice for her, the B project that it was.  Perhaps she needed the money.

She had moved to New York after Bogart's death (she never really was a California girl) and became a renowned Broadway star.  She always sought this kind of acclaim in Hollywood and never quite achieved it. 

She had rather lengthy romances with Frank Sinatra and Harry Guardino but they both ended badly.  Throughout the sixties she was married to Jason Robards.  I don't think it's a stretch to say he looked a little bit like Bogart.  It was not a happy union, despite producing a son (she had a son and daughter by Bogie)... his drinking, philandering and general pig-headedness got in the way.

She did continue to make periodic films.  The better ones were the Paul Newman ode to film noir, Harper (1966).  Bacall looked older by now and some of the roles she undertook were, well, shrewish.  Mrs. Sampson of Harper was the queen of shrew.  She was ideally cast in two Hercule Poirot mysteries... as one of the many murderers in Murder on the Orient Express (1974) and the victim in Appointment with Death (1988).

I found The Fan (1981) such an interesting Bacall movie.  It concerned a rather haughty Broadway star (hmmm) who is being stalked by a way-too-crazy fan, frighteningly played by Michael Biehn.  It was not only a thriller but a rather creepy one at that... grisly murders along the way.  It, too, seemed not the type of movie she would make but there she was... in her own apartment.  Yes, the set was her very own digs in the famed Dakota.  How creepy is that?  With Bacall's BFF James Garner in the cast along with the wonderful Maureen Stapleton, I really liked this film.  A lot of critics dismissed this film outright.  Personally, one of my chief reasons for liking it is because I think this was the real Bacall.  Never was the real person more in evidence. 

I was taken in with the fable-like Mr. North (1998) but it was an ensemble-piece and her role was no more or less notable than anyone else's except Anthony Edwards in the title role.  It was clever and appropriate of Barbra Streisand to cast Bacall as her mother in The Mirror Has Two Faces (1996), her last good role and her only Oscar-nominated performance.  She and most everyone alive thought she would win, too, but Juliette Binoche snatched it away for The English Patient.

She would continue to make movies throughout the remainder of her life but most of them were anywhere from offbeat and largely unseen to dreadful.  Frankly, I admire that the old girl kept at her trade, no matter the output.

Bacall wrote her own memoirs twice... the first of the two was the best, By Myself.  I quite enjoyed a book by her son Stephen, In Search of My Father.  I thought he portrayed his mother as someone whom he certainly loved but who was difficult and way too opinionated for his tastes. 

I had my own personal recollection of Bacall that I outlined in an earlier piece, Betty at the Bookstore.

She died of a stroke at home in the Dakota this week at age 89.  What a life she had led.  Maybe I should go ahead and give the cantankerous old thing her due and offer an RIP, after all.  I certainly want to be gracious about the hours and hours of fun times I have had with her in darkened theaters.  One way of honoring her was to never use her first name, as invented by Howard Hawks, at all in this piece.  She hated it.  So take, care Betty.

Burton Without Taylor

1 comment:

  1. Bacall's "adored father"? He was
    out of her life at age 8, and when
    years later, he wanted to reconnect, she had no time for
    him! She had nothing good to
    say about him.