BORN THE BRONX, NEW YORK, SEPTEMBER 16, 1924. DIED NEW YORK, AUGUST 12, 2014, AGED 89
WITH HER lowered eyes, curling lip and sculptured waves, Lauren Bacall’s incend i a r y q u a l i t y sprang oddly from shyness rather than insouciance. Few actors today could outshine her. She was the indefinable grandmother of cool.
A star of the golden age of Hollywood, Bacall was spirited, intelligent and edgy, an elegant actor who could play tough love. She was noted for her roles opposite the man she would marry, Humphrey Bogart, a man with a similar air of animalistic energy beneath the suave sophistication.
Katherine Hepburn and Bette Davis were fellow travellers, and perhaps Kate Blanchett is moulded from similar stuff among younger stars. But Bacall’s appeal had an incomparable sensuality. She smouldered with a subversive sex appeal
Born Betty Joan Perske, the “nice Jewish girl” was brought up in poverty by her single parent mother, abandoned early by her father. She paid her way through the American Academy of Dramatic Arts working as an usherette and dress trade model until talent-spotted by Diana Vreeland, the fashion editor of Harper’s Bazaar. A cover shot demonstrating her full potential attracted both David O Selznick and Columbia Pictures. But it was director Howard Hawks’s wife Nancy who decided her look and style reflected her own, and after a screen test Hawks offered a contract. He played Svengali to Bacall and became the father-figure she missed.
She made her screen debut at the age of 19, opposite Bogart in To Have and Have Not in 1944, loosely based on Hemingway’s novel. Two packs of cigarettes a day developed the famous husky voice. It was this film that featured her famous sexy riposte to Bogart: “You know how to whistle, don’t you? You just put your lips together and blow.” It was Hawks who conflated their names, Bogart and Bacall, inventing the name Lauren to complete his construct. The intense love affair between the two stars was incandescent, but aroused the ire of Hawk who, at a time of Hollywood puritanism, wanted to preserve Bogart’s third marriage to Mayo Methot and warned Bacall not to risk her career. He cast them next in Raymond Chandler’s The Big Sleep, and finally Bogart divorced his wife and married Bacall in 1945.
The pair had lit up the screen, but in a sense Bacall’s career was already done and dusted, as she became immersed in her husband’s life and friendships, even tolerating Bogart’s long-lasting affair with his toupee-maker. She made the less than inspiring Confidential Agent in 1945 and starred with Bogart again in Dark Passage and in John Huston’s Key Largo. She had two children with Bogart, Steve and Leslie, and campaigned against McCarthyism in the 1950s, which forced her to repudiate allegations that she was a communist.
She rejected poorer roles, but competition was on its way via the vulnerable charm of Marilyn Monroe and the purity of Grace Kelly, women moulded by a new era, which cared less for the spirit of a Bacall. The teenager who played a femme fatale, had become a grande dame in the wake of this new blood.
Other films followed in the 50s: How to Marry a Millionaire, Written on the Wind, Designing Woman and North West Frontier. Her last film with Bogart planned by Warner, was never made because by then he was dying of cancer of the oesophagus. She described his death in her candid autoiography, Myself.
An affair with Frank Sinatra and a second marriage to actor Jason Robards with whom she had a son, Sam, failed. Her subsequent films — Harper, 1966, Misery, 1990, The Shootist, Murder on the Orient Expresss, 1974 and The Mirror Has Two Faces, 1996, in which she played Barbra Streisand’s pushy mother (winning a Golden Globe as best supporting actress) — depicted her in mature roles, lacking her fire.
In fact the story of Bacall’s career is really one of unfulfilled promise. But on Broadway, legendary starting point for major Holywood stars, she demonstrated her stage gifts: in George Axelrod’s 1959 comedy Goodbye Charlie, Cactus Flower in 1965 and Martini in Applause, a 1970 musical based on All About Eve, which won her a Tony. She also played a journalist in a musical based on the film Woman of the Year in 1981.
In London Bacall was directed by Harold Pinter in Tennessee Williams’ Sweet Bird of Youth in 1985 and in Chichester she played in Friedrich Durrenmatt’s The Visit in 1995. She continued working, notably in voiceovers, until 2012. She received an honorary Oscar in 2009. Lauren Bacall is survived by Steve, Leslie and Sam.
Lauren Bacall: incandescent actor who featured in films with future husband and co-star Humphrey Bogart