Two contrasting Hollywood deaths this week gave great pause for sadness. What can one usefully add about the suicide of Robin Williams? I find it rather over-simplifying the matter to say manic depression gave Mr Williams his career and eventually took his life. I would consider a career on film spanning four decades of great performances such as Good Will Hunting, Dead Poets Society and Mrs Doubtfire was a triumph for a man who had learned to discipline his terror.
Interesting phrase no? I borrowed it from screenwriter Gavin Lambert who said that Vivien Leigh ‘disciplined her terror’ in order to make later films such as Lambert’s The Roman Spring of Mrs Stone under the shadow of mania. Early success is a two-edged sword. Leigh probably knew that Gone With the Wind (1939) captured her beauty, vivacity and talent in her prime. Much the same happened to a 19-year old Lauren Bacall, who died this week, in her debut movie To Have and Have Not in 1944.
We have Diana Vreeland to thank for putting a teenage Betty Joan Perske on the cover of Harper’s Bazaar and director Howard Hawks’s wife Slim for giving the girl with the emerald cat’s eyes a screen test. Bacall, like Vivien Leigh, was one of the great screen beauties of Hollywood’s golden age. One cannot imagine that the sassy, cynical film noir heroine of To Have and Have Not could possibly still be in her teens. Yet more improbable that The Look – chin down, eyes hooded, lips pouting – was a pose set to stop Bacall shaking when she first worked with husband-to-be Humphrey Bogart.
The glory of Bacall’s early performances in To Have and Have Not and Raymond Chandler adaptation The Big Sleep was that she punched at equal weight with Bogart. If he cracked wise, she cracked wiser. When Bogart catches a fainting broad in To Have and Have Not, Bacall’s character Slim drawls ‘trying to guess her weight?’ Having made The Big Sleep in which it was obvious that Bogart and Bacall were courting off screen as well as on, composer Moss Hart told Bacall ‘you realise from here you have nowhere to go but down’.
As it happened, Lauren Bacall did not go down and adopted the straight-talking, ball-breaking, worldly-wise persona honed on screen for the rest of her life. Her philosophy in her own words was ‘the world doesn’t owe you a damned thing!’ Of the marriage to Bogart that ended with his death in 1957, she reflected ‘without Bogie I would not have had a better life, but a better career’.
The critics, however, have concluded that Bacall never matched her performances in those first two films. Really? I think she made two more crackers with Bogart (Dark Passage and Key Largo) and one of the definitive 50s sex comedies How to Marry a Millionaire with Betty Grable and Marilyn Monroe. The brilliant film critic David Thomson questioned why Bacall’s natural dry wit wasn’t exploited further and pondered the fact that she photographed better in black and white than colour.
Understandably, Bacall tired of being a professional widow and snarled if journalists or fans asked her to open the window on her marriage to Bogart. She had a reputation for being difficult from the early 50s because she turned down so many inferior scripts…possibly knowing she already had a legacy to protect. The obits have glossed over the fact that away from Hollywood she became one of the few screen actresses to conquer Broadway winning a Tony as Margot Channing in Applause based on the Bette Davis film All About Eve.
Whenever Lauren Bacall chose to make a movie, she brought gravitas and class to the production be that Murder on the Orient Express, Misery or The Mirror Has Two Faces. Bacall was nominated for a Best Supporting Actress Oscar for the latter, made in 1997, and showed refreshing candour on camera when she didn’t win. When finally awarded an honorary Oscar in 2009, Bacall flashed her usual world-weary wit by saying ‘a man at last’.
If one is judged by the quality and loyalty of one’s friends, then Lauren Bacall was a truly great dame. Her closest chums were Hollywood’s most decent, intelligent and amusing people: Gregory Peck, Katharine Hepburn, Dirk Bogarde, Judy Garland and David Niven. Much has been written about the Bogart-Bacall marriage and the myths that surround it. Am I the only one who wants to leave the legend alone? Bacall did marry a second time, to actor Jason Robards in 1961, but divorced eight years later due in part to his alcoholism.
I don’t think there was an atom of self-pity in Lauren Bacall’s body. When she won the Golden Globe for The Mirror Has Two Faces she was asked whether the gong made her happy. Bacall replied ‘contented, yes. Pleased and proud, yes. But not happy’. This neatly sums up the ambiguity and complexity of life as a living legend. Lauren Bacall spent 57 of her 89 years as Humphrey Bogart’s widow. That’s a lot of years on chat shows being asked to repeat her most famous line from To Have and Have Not ‘You know how to whistle, don’t you Steve? Just put your lips together and blow’.