Actor who broke into movies with To Have and Have Not was married to Humphrey Bogart, performed on Broadway and received honorary Oscar during her 60-year career
She was a nice Jewish girl brought up right by mother in two rooms on the wrong side of the tracks in Manhattan, her father long fled from their lives. She was so nervous in her first film role, at all of 19 years old, that her head shook; so she tilted her chin down to steady herself, and had to look up from under at the camera. She stood at the bedroom door of "a hotel in Martinique in the French West Indies" – the Warner Bros lot in Hollywood – looked up, and asked Humphrey Bogart for a match. And defined her life.
At that incendiary moment in 1944, Lauren Bacall, who has died aged 89, was still Betty Bacall, and had been recently Betty Perske; a stagestruck teenager whose poor family finances bought her a bare year at the American Academy of Dramatic Arts (fellow pupil and first crush, Kirk Douglas), and whose fought-for debut parts were in flops. She had to pay her way as an usherette and model, an unglam garment trade live dummy, until her photogenic potential was spotted by Diana Vreeland, fashion editor of Harper's Bazaar. Vreeland had an instinct for the face of the times, for a movie in a single still; and the shot that begat Bacall was a Bazaar cover, Betty besuited before a Red Cross office door. It's lit noirishly, and she is acting independent – a frank, clever gal caught up in the war effort.
It was seen in Hollywood by David O Selznick, and Columbia pictures; both inquired after her. But the real connection was made by Nancy "Slim" Hawks, wife to director Howard Hawks, who seems to have recognised in Betty's stance a style much like her own, plus the physical substance of her husband's dreams. She alerted Hawks, and Bacall was invited to entrain across America on the 20th Century Limited to be screen-tested; Hawks offered her a personal contract. Bacall treated him as a surrogate father, and understood only later that he always wanted to be Svengali, making over a kid from nowhere into his desirable girl. His fantasy woman was sexually experienced and insolent; Hawks had hung out with Ernest Hemingway and co, who (as Slim complained after the marriage was over) wanted females who did not wimp out or whinge about the big game hunting, the hard drinking and harder bullshitting – but who were young enough not to be equals, so that they were never a threat.
Bacall sweated out months in Hollywood, showing off on demand as a protege at parties or sitting in her first car up a canyon bawling The Robe aloud by the hour to lower her voice – Hawks disliked women screeching; she bottomed out close in tone to a trombone. Two packs of cigarettes a day helped the baritone. At last Hawks developed a character for her, a near-tramp named 'Slim', in an approximate adaptation of Hemingway's To Have and Have Not, starring Jack Warner's alpha male, Bogart. The film was a wittier riff on Bogart's previous smasheroo, Casablanca, and it was a hell of a way for a girl to sashay into movies.
Hawks's creation became the fantasy of a generation when she growled at Bogart that he need do nothing but whistle – "You know how to whistle, don't you? ... You just put your lips together and blow." If the lines had been delivered by a savvy contemporary of Bogart (say his Maltese Falcon co-star Mary Astor), and not a naive girl acting worldly, most men in the audience would have hid under the seat for a week. Critic James Agee thought Bacall provocative and preposterous, both a wolfwhistle and a belly laugh. He was wrong about her "stonecrushing confidence" (she had none and acquired little), but he did understand that she was a construct.
What had not been invented, though, what made the film hot, was the reactive chemistry between Bacall (renamed "Lauren", a Hawks attempt at swank) and Bogart, then 44 and on his third marriage to the drunk, slugging actor Mayo Methot. B & B called each other by their characters' names, Steve and Slim, they joshed, they lit each other's cigarettes in instinctive rapport, they fell in love, although whether with the reality of each other or with the parts they were playing no one will ever know. Long after, even she couldn't say.
Hawks was jealous. He warned Bacall not to risk ending her career just as it began: the film was a big pop success. Since in Hollywood no therm of sexual heat can be wasted, he then cast Bacall and Bogart in Raymond Chandler's The Big Sleep (1946). The edgy ruefulness of that movie probably derived from their relationship during the shooting; Bogart wanted to marry his fresh start and also to behave like a gent towards Mayo; Bacall was obsessed with her adoring hero. They shared a private humour in their scripted exchanges – Bacall's part bumped up on the suggestion of the sharp talent agent, Charlie Feldman – and their innuendo was wicked; no onscreen shag could show what Bacall suggested just by scratching her stockinged thigh. Yet you sense that nothing is sure between them. Bogart missed days on set, drunk, depressed: then he made up his mind. As his divorce crawled through, he sent her a wire "Please fence me in Baby – the world's too big out here and I don't like it without you." They married in 1945. Bacall walked willingly into his world – the pals of his generation, his continuing affair with his toupee-maker, his liquor consumption (high, but controlled), his refuge of a yacht, the Santana – as if her wedding vows had been those of the biblical Ruth: "Thy people shall be my people, and thy land" – well-staffed houses in the Hollywood Hills above Sunset Strip – "my land".
Hawks had been spot on about her career, as was the playwright Moss Hart, who told her: "You realise from here you have nowhere to go but down." Those two films were the best she did; without Bogart, in The Confidential Agent (1945), she seemed cold not cool, minus the zap of her Hawksian dames. She was cast with Bogart again in Dark Passage, and in John Huston's 1948 Key Largo, but in both she was sombre and self-effacing, having by degrees dwindled into wifely respectability. Bogart didn't want her to be actor first and wife second – his own King Kong-like fantasy of a woman was that she should fit into a man's pocket, to be displayed on the palm of his hand, expanded to full-size when desired – and contracted back on command.
She wanted to make him happy, to be Bogart's Baby and to have Bogart's babies. In 1947, she went to Washington with a well-intentioned but politically innocent group, including Bogart and John Huston, to protest against the anti-leftwing bullying of the House Un-American Activities Committee; five years later she campaigned for the unsuccessful Democratic presidential candidate, Adlai Stevenson, another father mentor. She bore Bogart's children, Steve and Leslie; supplied antibiotics to sick location crews on The Treasure of the Sierra Madre and The African Queen, learned to sip Jack Daniel's through a long evening. When the Hollywood rat pack (qualifications: nonconformity, drinking, laughing) was first formed in a private room at Romanoff's, she was voted Den Mother, never out of humour.
Bacall was playing for real a high-grade version of the postwar homemaker bride, but she was not in many movies. Hawks sold her contract to Jack Warner, who suspended her 12 times for refusing crap roles; 50s models of women were rolling off a new production line. Class now meant the aloofness of Grace Kelly; sass meant the vulnerable trashiness of Marilyn Monroe. None of them were sensual as Bacall had been, or as direct, straight-talking and brave. What happened to the image of women post-1945 is summed up in the difference between Bacall unfazed by Bogart's drunk sidekick in To Have and Have Not (who grudgingly admits "Lady, you're all right") and Bacall unamused as the mink-pursuer in How to Marry a Millionaire, 1953. And that was considered a good part. She bought out her contract, but all that expensive gesture purchased was a soapy role in Douglas Sirk's Written on the Wind (1956) through which, you hope hopelessly, she will take tormented Robert Stack out for a belt of bourbon; and another refrigerated career girl in Designing Woman (1957).
Warner Bros was planning in 1956 to team Bogart and Bacall again, in the love story of a military man and a journalist. Just perfect, only it never got made, because that was the year Bacall watched Bogart die from cancer of the oesophagus at the age of 57. In her 1978 autobiography, By Myself, she described his dissolution with the unflinching candour he would have expected of her: the odour of decay on his kiss, the old robe from Dark Passage she wore the night he died in the bed they had long shared, the sack in which his body was taken away to Forest Lawn crematorium.
She displayed a model of the Santana at the funeral – a spirit ship indeed – and sold the real boat. The role of the Widow Bogart, relict of a myth, was not the lifetime part she wanted, although the relative honour of his Hollywood meant more to her as decades passed. His death was the beginning of the bad times. Her comforting but uncomfortable affair with Frank Sinatra froze over: her second marriage to actor Jason Robards produced her third child, Sam, but foundered because of his drinking, and maybe because she was growing into the maturity she had always implied.
The heroine she could have been onscreen was seen for the last time in an unpretentious British adventure, North West Frontier, 1959: her governess, boarding a trainload of corpses to retrieve a live baby, has a warmth and strength still not often allowed women in the movies. And certainly not Bacall thereafter. "Film is not a woman's medium," she wrote: "If you weren't the hottest kid in town, men stayed away from you." She was a mere 42 when she took a cameo as a jaded California invalid in the noir-lite Harper (1966), and most of her subsequent film turns exhibited her as a matron – sometimes amiable (James Caan's literary agent in Misery, 1990, John Wayne's landlady in The Shootist, 1976), more often monstrous – a tragedienne disguised as a parvenu in Death On the Orient Express (1974), Barbra Streisand's mother – less of a dinosaur than the daughter – in The Mirror Has Two Faces (1996), for which she won a Golden Globe as best supporting actress. She needed the money; Bogart had bequeathed her custodianship of the legend but not megabucks, as the studio system never generated millions for its stars.
Real work satisfaction came more from her long-delayed Broadway career. George Axelrod constructed his 1959 comedy Goodbye Charlie around her; then she starred in Cactus Flower, 1965, in the theatre where she had once ushered in white cuffs – although Ingrid Bergman stole her part in the movie. In 1970, she grabbed the Bette Davis role as an ageing diva of the Martini in Applause, a musical adaptation of All About Eve. It wasn't much of a musical, but who gave a damn; she got the chance to be the Bacall she had always wanted to be – as Alistair Cooke wrote, as "fragile as a moose". Her leading man, Len Cariou, was her lover for a while; she picked up a Tony award; a Life magazine cover showed a sexy woman laughing, arm flung up in triumph. The earned success was transient, although she won another Tony in an update of Katharine Hepburn's journalist role in a musical of the film Woman of the Year, 1981.
Bacall kept on working, admitting that every job, especially on stage, reverted her to youthful nervousness. Harold Pinter directed her in the first London production of Tennessee Williams's Sweet Bird of Youth, 1985, and Terry Hands less successfully in Friedrich Dürrenmatt's The Visit at Chichester in 1995. As age broadened that 24-inch waist and chiselled face, she decisively restyled herself, with help from a trainer and the make-up artist Kevyn Aucoin, as a lioness in winter, her wavy mane tamed, the better to emphasis the graphic eyebrows, always her most distinctive feature, and gruff voice. A late magnificence was visible in Robert Altman's Prêt-à-porter, 1995, and in her awesome matriarchs in Lars von Trier's Dogville 2003 and Manderlay, 2005, and Jonathan Glaser's Birth, 2004. The most accurate casting was her turn as a Washington social grandee in Paul Schrader's 2007 neo-noir The Walker, demolishing Woody Harrelson's gay escort with the line: "Memory is a very unreliable organ: it's right up there with the penis."
She herself went unescorted in age, unbothered about it, and was proprietorial about the definition of a movie "legend" after over 60 years in gainful employment: less than a couple of decades of stardom, she said, and you were just a beginner. (She received an Honorary Oscar in 2009).Lunching with her was an audience with the last empress of Byzantium, imperiousness interspersed with a really dirty laugh, perhaps the sound of her true self. Every online search sends you back to a picture of her at 19 giving The Look, the one in which her eyes (as David Thomson wrote) suggested blow jobs: "You know, Steve, you don't have to say anything. You don't have to do anything. You just have to whistle."
She is survived by Steve, Leslie, and Sam.
Lauren Bacall (Betty Joan Perske), actor, born 16 September, 1924; died 12 August, 2014