Lauren Bacall was one of the last links to the golden age of Hollywood… yet she gracefully reinvented herself in later years, first on Broadway and then onscreen. She became a welcome presence as a character actress in such varied films as Murder on the Orient Express, The Shootist (with John Wayne), Lars von Trier’s Dogville, and Birth (with Nicole Kidman). She contributed a fine voice performance to the American version of Hayao Miyazaki’s animated feature Howl’s Moving Castle and earned an Oscar nomination playing Barbra Streisand’s mother in The Mirror Has Two Faces.
She had nothing but praise for Streisand, who also directed the film. In fact, it was the first time Bacall had worked with a female director. “It’s great to be directed by a woman who really knows what she wants,” she told me, “and Barbra certainly does know what she wants. She has a vision and she knows how to realize that vision.
“She had a definite concept of me playing this part. The preconceptions of me by a lot of people that I’m always this glamorous figure—or whatever people think I am—she wanted me not to be like that. And I said, ‘I don’t want to be like that…we’ve had enough of that,’ ” she said with a laugh. “We have a kind of thread between us that connects us…and I felt it in the scenes when we were playing them.”
She was a formidable woman—some might say intimidating—yet she professed to be insecure. It’s not necessarily a contradiction. I had good experiences every time I interviewed her, but I was always conscious of being on my toes. You didn’t want to hesitate, or waffle, when speaking with Miss Bacall. (In that regard she was not unlike her friend Katharine Hepburn.)
Whenever we spoke, I covered the immediate subject at hand and then “snuck in” some questions about friends and colleagues from Old Hollywood, from Peter Lorre (“Funny, very analytical. A very complicated, fascinating man”) to Charles Boyer (“Adorable man, wonderful actor. He was a terrific chess player and an insomniac. He and Bogie used to play chess on the set when we were making that terrible movie that almost ruined my career, Confidential Agent.”). I once told her how much I enjoyed her appearances with Humphrey Bogart on Jack Benny’s radio show, and she smiled at the memory. “He was a genius at what he did,” she said. “And he was so generous to his guests. He didn’t try to hog the limelight all the time, which was, of course, very rare.
“He came to see me in Applause half a dozen times, at least. When he first saw me in the show in New York, he said, ‘You have perfect timing.’ My God, coming from Jack Benny, who had perfect timing, I was so flattered.”
Ultimately, I think of Lauren Bacall as a survivor: a star in her debut movie, To Have and Have Not, when she was barely 20, opposite the man who would become her husband, Humphrey Bogart, widowed in her early 30s, she moved from Hollywood back to her home town of New York and remarried. A year after divorcing her second husband (Jason Robards, Jr.) she made her Broadway debut and won a Tony Award for her performance as Margo Channing—a role created by her favorite actress, Bette Davis—in Applause. That opened the next chapter of her acting career, out of Bogart’s shadow, and led to many fruitful years, culminating in an honorary Academy Award in 2010. That’s a life, and a career, worth celebrating.