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Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

R.I.P. Lauren Bacall, glamorous siren of the Golden Age

Illustration for article titled R.I.P. Lauren Bacall, glamorous siren of the Golden Age

Actress Lauren Bacall, one of the most prominent surviving links to the Golden Age of Hollywood, has died at the age of 89. Bacall’s first screen appearance, opposite her future husband Humphrey Bogart in Howard Hawks’ To Have And Have Not (1944), remains one of the most smashing debuts in Hollywood history. The legendary romance of “Bogie and Bacall” played out both onscreen and off, and gave Bacall a radiance that clung to her for the rest of her life.


Bacall (née Betty Joan Perske) began working as a teenage model before studying acting at the American Academy Of Dramatic Arts. She made her Broadway debut at 17, in a walk-on role in a play called Johnny 2 X 4. But her real screen test turned out to be a cover shoot for Harper’s Bazaar. The magazine caught the eye of Hawks’ then-wife, the socialite Nancy “Slim” Keith, whom Truman Capote would later caricature as “Lady Coolbirth” in his notorious unfinished novel Answered Prayers.

On the basis of that photo, Keith told her husband that the untried—and as yet unheard—Bacall might have the stuff to be a movie star. Hawks had Betty Joan flown out to California, and when he actually met her and realized her sultry voice was every bit as enrapturing as her look, he must have thought that all his Christmases had come at once. He promptly rechristened her “Lauren” (she took “Bacall” from her mother’s maiden name) and signed her to a seven-year personal contract, and turned her over to his wife for Pygmalion lessons in style and deportment.

The 19-year-old Bacall first met the 44-year-old Bogart on the set of To Have And Have Not. It is said to have been love at first sight—a good thing for the picture and their onscreen chemistry, but an awkward thing in real life, where Bogart was still married to the actress Mayo Methot, an alcoholic who once stabbed her tough-guy husband in the shoulder and pointed a gun at him during a dinner party.

For much of 1944, Bacall found herself living in a romantic melodrama, as she and Bogart launched an affair, then cooled things when the suspicious Methot began frequenting the set, and then, to Bacall’s despair, appeared to break up for good when Bogart decided he was obligated to save his marriage. In October, the month that the movie opened, Bogart and Bacall reunited to perform a radio-play version of the script on Lux Radio Theater, and Bogart announced that he was leaving his wife—only to announce again 11 days later that he and Methot had agreed to “return to our normal battles.” It was all over when Methot filed for divorce on May 10, 1945. Bogart and Bacall were married 11 days later.

The Big Three of To Have And Have Not—Bogart, Bacall, and Hawks—worked together once more, on the 1946 film noir classic The Big Sleep. Bogart and Bacall also co-starred in Dark Passage (1947) and John Huston’s Key Largo (1948), which gave Bogart the chance to butt heads with the tough-guy icon of a previous decade, Edward G. Robinson. In 1955, she and Bogart also co-starred in a TV adaptation of The Petrified Forest, the play (and, later, movie) that cemented Bogart’s principled-tough image.

By then, Hawks had sold Bacall’s personal contract to Warner Bros. Bacall earned a reputation for being difficult at Warners, repeatedly turning down roles—something even the biggest stars simply didn’t do in the studio era, especially when it was Jack Warner offering the roles in the first place. As punishment she was put on suspension a dozen times. Bacall appears to have been too busy being half of the premier celebrity married couple of the day and playing den mother to Bogart’s beloved “Rat Pack” to care much about building her own career.


Nevertheless, she did make time to co-star with Charles Boyer in the 1945 Graham Greene adaptation Confidential Agent; with Kirk Douglas in the jazz man melodrama Young Man With A Horn (1950); with Gary Cooper in Michael Curtiz’s Bright Leaf (1950); with Marilyn Monroe and Betty Grable in How To Marry A Millionaire (1953); in Vincente Minnelli’s sanitarium soap opera The Cobweb (1955) and his romantic comedy Designing Woman (1957), opposite Gregory Peck; and in Douglas Sirk’s Written On The Wind (1956). A trend was emerging: In comedies and glossy melodramas, Bacall was getting cast as the staid good girl, leaving the comedy and the sexiness and the histrionics to other actresses.

Bogart died in 1957. From 1961 to 1969, Bacall was married to Jason Robards, with whom she had a son, the actor Sam Robards. During this period, her career slowed to a trickle; her most notable screen credit in the 1960s was the private detective thriller Harper (1966) where, in what may have been intended as an homage to The Big Sleep, she played the detective’s employer, a wheelchair-bound millionaire. She also appeared on Broadway in the comedy Cactus Flower (1965) and the Betty Comden-Adolf Green musical Applause (1970), which was an adaptation of the 1950 movie All About Eve. She won a Tony Award for the latter, in a role created onscreen by her idol, Bette Davis. Bacall reprised her performance for a 1973 TV version, and also starred in the London production.

In 1974, Bacall made her first movie appearance in eight years as part of the all-star ensemble cast of the Agatha Christie whodunit Murder On The Orient Express (1974). She co-starred with John Wayne in his final film, The Shootist (1976). She guest-starred on a two-part episode of The Rockford Files (1979), then reunited with Rockford star James Garner twice: in the unlucky Robert Altman film HEALTH (1980), and The Fan (1981), a thriller about a psychopath stalking a movie star that had the misfortune to open just months after the murder of John Lennon and John Hinckley’s shooting of President Reagan. In 1981, she starred in another Broadway musical based on an old movie, Woman Of The Year. Four years later, she appeared in a London production of Tennessee Williams’ Sweet Bird Of Youth directed by Harold Pinter. In She also played James Caan’s agent in Misery (1990) and appeared in Altman’s Pret-A-Porter (1994).


In 1996, Barbra Streisand cast Bacall as her mother in The Mirror Has Two Faces. The supporting performance earned Bacall her only Academy Award nomination. She was widely expected to win, but instead she lost to Juliette Binoche for The English Patient.

After that, she made a two-part guest appearance on Chicago Hope; played Doris Duke on the 1999 TV movie Too Rich; supplied a voice for the English-language version of Hayao Miyazaki’s Howl’s Moving Castle (2004); and had roles in Lars Von Trier’s Dogville (2003) and Manderlay (2005); Jonathan Glazer’s Birth (2004); and Paul Schrader’s The Walker (2007). She also had a cameo as herself in The Sopranos’ “Luxury Lounge,” in which she’s mugged by a Hollywood gift suite-robbing Christopher.

In recognition of Bacall’s lifetime of achievements and place in Hollywood history, Bacall was finally given an Honorary Academy Award in 2010. She published two volumes of memoirs, By Myself (1978) and Now (1994).