In the coming days and possibly for eternity, Lauren Bacall will be described as “sultry.” That’s how a news alert of her death at 89 put it yesterday when it popped onto the screen of my phone. That’s how a highly esteemed college professor of mine summed up her place within the old studio system. If all you knew of Bacall is that she once stood in a doorway, asked Humphrey Bogart if he knew how to whistle, then told him to put his lips together and blow, then, yes, fine: sultry.
But is that the best we can do for Bacall? It wasn’t sultriness that made her a star, but its opposite. Passion? That was Elizabeth Taylor’s game. She singed. Ava Gardner? Rita Hayworth? Jane Russell? They could stand near a pot of water and, by sheer proximity, bring it to a boil. Bacall would look at the pot, then at you, and say turn on the goddamned stove. She was hot, sure, but mostly, she was cool — though not in that Kim Novak way. Bacall wasn’t chilly, just chilled. And from that cool emerged an onscreen intimidation that was unlike any I’d ever felt with a major star from the 1940s and 1950s.
The other stars of her era were in a tizzy about how and who to be — it took them years to figure themselves out. But Bacall always appeared to know and never had to change that much. Hers wasn’t a face that moved much. It didn’t need to. That low voice, deepened by smoking and lots of practice, was expression enough, and those eyebrows were permanently arched for mischief, judgment, insinuation, and glamour.
At 19, she arrived fully formed in Howard Hawks’s To Have and Have Not, with an assurance that made her seem far more mature than she was. She had an intense, unfathomable womanliness that had nothing to do with cleavage or voluptuousness. To be fair, she never became the star she probably should have been. She spent the first 12 years of her career internationally famous for being Mrs. Humphrey Bogart. They met in 1944 on the set of To Have and Have Not, and it was a solid, loving relationship that Bacall has said made her happy even as she knew that being a wife and mother was denting her chances to make more than a film every couple of years.
When she worked, it was mostly with her husband, playing The Girl in The Big Sleep (1946), Dark Passage (1947), and Key Largo (1948). The romantic high point of Delmer Daves’s Dark Passage comes after an hour or so, with Bacall’s removal of the bandages covering Bogart’s face, which up to then had been obscured. It’s understood at that point that, as he descends her spiral staircase with a Jo Stafford record on the player, looking every bit like Humphrey Bogart, they’re to be an item. He’s still got everything else to lose. But she’s got nothing but love in her face. Of their four movies together, this is the one in which they don’t even seem to be acting with each other, just emotionally conjoined. It creates a sensual diversion that starts to warp the rest of the film. Still, what passes between the lovers passes on to us: Bogie and Bacall forever.
Bacall’s death costs us one of the few remaining connections to a golden age of American moviemaking. It also takes away the other half of one of the most idealized marriage in the modern history of American celebrity. Bacall loved her Bogie, who died of cancer in 1957, with all of his faults. He, in turn, did the same. Bogart drank and could be erratic and confusing, as alcoholics tend to be. It was a similar story with Jason Robards, whom she married in 1961 and divorced eight years later.
Bogart was aggravated by Bacall’s friendship with Adlai Stevenson. She campaigned for Stevenson when he ran as the Democratic nominee for president in 1952, and the following year wrote an essay for Look magazine called “I Hate Young Men,” in which she more or less enumerated the men on whom she had an intellectual or reality-driven morality crush. Stevenson was on the list. So were Alistair Cooke and the directors Nunnally Johnson and John Huston. (This was an era in which being fascinating trumped being hot, which, conventionally, few of the very big male stars were.) Imagine Angelina Jolie writing something like that 15 years ago — and who would she even have put on the list?
In any case, Bogart didn’t seem to mind the article. It was Bacall’s prolonging a work trip to attend an event with Stevenson that bothered him. It was also likely her near total consumption with the politician and his consumption with her. She was in her late twenties at this point, Stevenson and Bogart in their mid 50s. “The truth is I had fun with him — and it was a new kind of fun. I was certain he needed continued encouragement,” she wrote of Stevenson in By Myself, after a weekend together, “not from other politicians, but from the rest of us. He had to realize how important he was:
“I was as selfish as many others in that I didn’t want him. I wanted — for my own sake — to have my hero governing this country. He was my first emotional hero since Roosevelt, but Adlai wasn’t a father figure as Roosevelt had been for me. He was someone I could look up to — his mind excited me — and his flirtation encouraged me. And some of his friends encouraged me — they said it was good for him to have me around, he enjoyed my company, felt easy and relaxed with me, I took his mind off his heavy responsibilities. Almost anything that good for Stevenson I was all for. So short of leaving husband and home — which I had no desire and intention of doing — I would see him when I could and keep the thread of my presence alive in his consciousness.”
Meanwhile, Bogart was in Italy hanging out with Truman Capote (and Gina Lollobrigida, for what it’s worth) shooting Huston’s Beat the Devil. When Bacall arrived at his side, in London, she was trembling with nervousness (according to her, she was often atremble). He was happy to see her in his goofy way. “The thrill was far from gone,” she writes, seemingly nervous about their reunion in retrospect. “After eight years of marriage the excitement was as strong as ever.” That memoir is written with so many ellipses it’s practically pointillism. But Bacall makes sure the dots are big enough to connect. You always get the point.
Her one hit in this period was How to Marry a Millionaire, a self-explanatory romp in which three acquaintances share a penthouse where they audition prospective husbands. Except for the perverse sexual politics, it’s boring. But the movie lets Bacall lord her astringent, authoritative womanliness over Betty Grable and Marilyn Monroe. This movie seemed beneath Bacall’s sense of decorum, but she lets her rough classiness do the work in How to Marry a Millionaire. Her character’s name is Schatze Page — that’s “Shotsy,” as in she called them — and her elbows are sharp. Whenever Grable or Monroe jeopardize a score, she threatens to beat them up. She isn’t kidding, either. And maybe that was the problem for Bacall. She was never kidding. You leave this movie impressed by Grable’s unflappability and seized by Monroe’s … Monroe-ness.
After the 1940s, Bacall never got that role of a lifetime. (To have and have not was an occupational condition, too.) She made her mark in a particular genre (film noir), produced in a particular style (black-and-white). Technicolor robbed her of that haunting beauty. It was a face that bloomed in shade and shadow. Color neutralized the power of her mystery. She didn’t become the first-billed star of a movie until 1981’s stalk-the-actress thriller The Fan, a real turd disguised as a tribute to a living legend. It’s tempting to say it has to be seen to be believed (The Terminator’s Michael Biehn is the stalker! There are onstage musical numbers!), but it doesn’t.
In older age, Bacall acquired a grand dame’s capacity for both gravity and finessed, comfortable lightness, which she lacked at the height of her popularity. She won Tonys for adaptations of Hollywood classics. Into her 50s and 60s and 70s, she moved like a dancer and injected her work with a seasoned ritziness that stood in damning opposition to the ersatz regality of the world’s Joan Collinses. Even when she was hawking cat food, it was Fancy Feast. She worked with Altman and Lars von Trier a couple of times. She got her first Academy Award nomination for 1996’s The Mirror Has Two Faces, playing Barbra Streisand’s oppressive mother (the only kind Streisand knows). She was within spitting distance of a win, too, losing the Supporting Actress statue to Juliette Binoche. Bacall received a lot of negative attention for looking stunned to still be seated, but her disappointment was as touchingly honest as Cuba Gooding Jr.’s elation when he won later that night.
Bacall’s death occurs at a moment in which the most interesting women in American movies — Jolie and Scarlett Johansson — happen to be her progeny, women who photograph well but are interested in the interplay of toughness, vulnerability, femininity, and being looked at by men. (Demi Moore was a descendant, too.) You’d like to think she would have done Maleficent and Her and Lucy, that she would have tried to unpack and explore the meaning of her fame. Who knows? What’s apparent is that it’s not just the legacy of Bacall’s arguable sultriness that remains. It’s her sting.