Wednesday, August 13, 2014

Bacall in Winter

In tribute to Lauren Bacall, who passed away yesterday at the age of 89, I'm re-posting this appreciation I wrote about her a few years ago:

Most people fall in love with the nineteen-year old Lauren Bacall. And why not? She's beautiful--willowy and insolent, staring down Bogart in TO HAVE AND HAVE NOT. My favorite moment in the film comes just before the famous "just whistle" line. She sits on Bogart's lap and kisses him.

"What'd you do that for?" he asks.

"Been wondering whether or not I'd like it."

"What's the decision?"

"I don't know yet."

After they kiss again, she says, "It's even better when you help."

Great line, but then again the whole damn movie is quotable from start to finish. The two films that Bogart and Bacall made in the mid-forties with director Howard Hawks, TO HAVE AND HAVE NOT and THE BIG SLEEP, might well represent some kind of high water mark in Hollywood entertainment. Everything is just...perfect. Bogart made "greater" films, I suppose, (Falcon, Casablanca, Lonely Place) but if I could only have two of his films to take with me to that hypothetical DVD-compatible desert island...well, I'd take the Hawks films.

Bogart was a superstar before meeting Bacall, and his star continued to rise after they married. Her career, however, never really hit a higher peak than those first two Bogart films. Their last film KEY LARGO (1948) is good but John Huston doesn't give her much to do except moon for Bogie. DARK PASSAGE (1947) was their third film and remains a real hidden gem. It employs a gimmick for the first hour, a subjective camera, so we hear Bogart but don't see him until his character (an escaped convict trying to prove his innocence) gets a face lift that makes him look like Bogart. This puts the film's emphasis on Bacall for the first hour, and she wisely underplays the role (see Audrey Totter's performance in THE LADY IN THE LAKE, released the same year, as an example of how not to play to the subjective camera).

After '48, she and Bogart never made another picture together (though they did work together on television in 1955 for a live version of THE PETRIFIED FOREST with Henry Fonda). Their legacy rests, and rests securely one should add, on the four films they made together between 1944-1948. After that, she stayed home and raised kids, took the occasional role (such as YOUNG MAN WITH A HORN opposite Kirk Douglas), and tended to Bogart as he died of cancer in 1957.

She was 33 when he died. In the 53 years since, she's had various ups and downs-- from successes on Broadway to voiceovers for cat food commercials--but always and forever her legend swings back around to Bogie.

Which has got to be annoying.

But that's the weird thing about this oddity called movie stardom, it's based entirely on clusters of minutes. Lauren Bacall has been defined for her entire adult life by the approximately 100 minutes of screen time that comprise TO HAVE AND HAVE NOT. Imagine if everyone you met for the next sixty years, within seconds of meeting you, brought up the same hour and a half of your life. How tiresome must that be?

And, of course, how transcendent. How transcendent to know that through the voodoo of cinema you and someone you loved achieved the rarest thing possible: your love actually became immortal. If the human race doesn't destroy itself (a possibility, I'll grant) then human beings could be watching Bacall sit on Bogie's lap 500 years from now. Why not? I mean, we still read Romeo and Juliet.

These thoughts were inspired by a new interview with Bacall by Vanity Fair writer Matt Tyrnauer. Go check it out. Bacall remains the blunt--even grumpy--lady we've come to know through interviews and her bestselling autobiography (one of the first movie bios I ever read, incidentally). Who wouldn't want to spend time listening to this grand old dame tell her stories?

Read the interview here.

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