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The Essentials: Lauren Bacall’s 6 Best Performances

The Essentials: Lauren Bacall's 6 Best Performances

With the passing of Lauren Bacall at age 89 yesterday, the “they don’t make stars like that anymore”-style tributes came flooding in. But with all due respect to those sentiments, to us it seems they didn’t ever make stars like Bacall. Anomalous even in her starlet days, Bacall’s appeal was based on an allure that had as much to do with an attitude as any thespian talent. In fact, compare her early roles to later roles and it seems fair to suggest that acting technique and range were things Bacall acquired over time (and she was clearly a very quick study); what she walked onto that first set with, was unalloyed charisma.

She was beautiful, certainly, but among many pretty faces that would flit across the screen and never be seen again, Bacall’s steady gaze, her graceful but slightly self-conscious style of performance early on placed her immediately apart from the crowd. In such a revealing industry, one expecting emotional and often physical nakedness from its actresses, Bacall had an almost masculine reserve, a sense that you could never really get to the bottom of her mystery. And a sense that she was always looking back out at you from behind eyes that were animated by a private intelligence that missed absolutely nothing. Bacall was sexy in an unmistakable but utterly non-bimbo-ish way. Bacall was cool.

The story of her early career is as famous for its off-screen components as her work onscreen. You probably know that she fell in love with and married Humphrey Bogart, a process you can see beginning onscreen in her first film “To Have and Have Not.” And she famously placed a whistle engraved with the words “If you need anything, just whistle” into his coffin when he died —a callback to the charged exchange their characters share in that film. And most cineastes will recognize the husky purr of her voice and associate it with “the Look,” that unblinking, sly gaze up from under her eyelashes. It’s almost coy, but too insolent and unwavering for that. But “the Look” was engineered too, a conscious effort to quell the nerves that showed worst in her quivering jaw by dropping her chin and forcing herself to speak slower and lower.

In recent times, Bacall had started to crop up regularly as a fine supporting player, and though there is the frustrating sense that there might still have had one great late-period grande dame lead role in her, it never came. (She herself mentioned how much she’d have liked to to have worked with someone like Pedro Almodovar in a 2000 interview with Mark Cousins–why, ye Gods, did that not happen?) But then again, how like her, and the story of her fascinating life, career and unique persona, that despite warm interviews and chatty autobiographies, Bacall always maintained a deep-buried kernel of unknowability. She left us wanting more.

To Have and Have Not” (1944)
Howard Hawks’ delicious wartime romantic thriller resembles another  Humphrey Bogart’s films in this genre, “Casablanca,” but it doesn’t hang together quite as well as Michael Curtiz’ classic as a whole. Or maybe it’s just that the spark of individual scenes tend to obliterate memories of the overall plot —something about getting a French resistance leader to Martinique. But you’ll remember Bacall, her famous whistling speech (which is utter nonsense that somehow becomes transcendently sexy and double-entendre-ish simply because of how she delivers it); her palpable chemistry with soon-to-be-husband Bogie; her spectacular tailoring. If you look really hard, you can see the faintest traces of a gawky, non- confidant manner in Bacall’s performance, traces that would vanish in a couple of years, but that here add to the charm of this performance. But you do have to look really hard; where almost every other ingenue ever filmed had a mile-wide streak of bright eyed naivete to exploit, Bacall came to the screen fully formed as a world-weary, mistrustful wiseguy who just so happens to occupy the body of a supermodel, and whose ironic, cynical defenses are so well honed as to be unbreachable. Except perhaps by Humphrey Bogart, who can even make the girl wiggle (at 36s in the clip below).

The Big Sleep” (1946)
Having been hailed by critics as the greatest thing since sexy, sultry, seductive sliced bread for her debut “To Have and Have Not” Bacall was promptly knocked off her pedestal by those same critics who savaged her followup “Confidential Agent.” Based on the Graham Greene novel and co-starring Charles Boyer, it’s a bit dull but hardly deserves the disapprobation heaped on it. Still, Bacall and Warner Brothers went back to the original template for her third film, reteaming her with now-husband Bogart and director Howard Hawks for this adaptation of the Raymond Chandler novel. But the attempt to recapture lightning in a bottle for once actually paid off, as “The Big Sleep” is arguably the best film Bacall ever starred in —famously overplotted (Chandler himself reportedly didn’t know who killed the chauffeur, which forms a major plot point), it’s really an exercise in mood and charisma as Bogart definitively portrays Philip Marlowe, and Bacall sets the template for the ambiguous femme who may or may not be fatale. It’s gorgeously photographed, immensely melodramatic and ludicrously enjoyable, and Bacall has never been more coolly alluring than here, juggling divided loyalties, false confessions and family secrets with a hair never out of place. And how much do we love the handholding/glove rebuff that happens so casually below at 45s in? A lot. 

Key Largo” (1948)
The fourth and final Bogart/Bacall onscreen collaboration (their third, “Dark Passage” isn’t bad but is definitely the least of the quartet) “Key Largo” saw Bacall work for the first time with Bogart’s favorite director and close friend John Huston —they’d just wrapped “The Treasure of the Sierra Madre” together. The film is a very enjoyable slice of late ’40s noir, given an unusually wet and humid vibe for the genre by being set in the Florida Keys, shot largely during a hurricane  It’s also more of an ensemble piece than Bacall had experienced at the time: The film also stars Edward G Robinson as the gangster who holes up in Bacall’s hotel to wait out the storm, and Claire Trevor as his abused, alcoholic girlfriend. It’s perhaps the least developed role for Bacall of her four with Bogie (it was Trevor who got the showy part and claimed a Best Supporting Actress Oscar for it), but it’s an interesting thought experiment to imagine just how much poorer the film would have been with anyone else in that role. Despite being unusually relegated to the role of the good-girl love interest as the hotel owner/widow looking after her ailing father, Bacall brings an edge of ambivalence and independence to the role that makes her character much more interesting than was written, and much more a real foil for Bogart’s disillusioned soldier. An early riff on the home-invasion thriller, the film is really a crackling study in the dynamics of cabin fever, all sidelong glances and unspoken currents of tension and desire. Oh yes! And charged incidents of hair stroking. 

Young Man with a Horn” (1950)
Despite the now rather unfortunate title, this film from “Casablanca” director Michael Curtiz may be the closest Bacall’s back catalogue has to a truly overlooked gem. A melodramatic music-based film co-starring Kirk Douglas and Doris Day and loosely based on the life of jazz cornetist Bix Biederbecke, it pits Bacall against rising star Day first as friends, and then as love rivals and polar opposites. Fresh-faced and supportive Day is Jo, the singer with a band which Douglas’ Rick Martin joins, but then leaves because he wants to play his own way. Later Jo introduces Rick to Bacall’s Amy, a self-professed intellectual studying to be a psychiatrist who lives the kind of sophisticated, wealthy lifestyle that Rick aspires to and who embodies a kind of sexy, self-assured, worldly womanhood that the lovelorn Jo cannot compete with. Despite the film clearly setting Bacall up as the villain, a seductress tempting Rick away from Jo’s pure hearted love and heavily hinted to be a lesbian, Bacall invests her with a dignity and that trademark intelligence that makes us read far more depth into the character than we probably otherwise would. In fact, despite the streak of potential amorality that ran through a lot of her characters to this point, Bacall had so far really only played women who turned out to be “good,” so this is a great early example of something else from the actress: the woman who gets her man but turns out not to deserve him after all.

Written on the Wind” (1956)
A dizzyingly lush melodrama from the absolute master of dizzyingly lush melodrama Douglas Sirk, “Written On The Wind” (also: awesome title, awesome song) was again loosely based on real people, this time tobacco heir Zachary Smith-Reynolds and his wife Libby Holman. But the operative word must surely be “loosely,” because it’s hard for us to believe that anyone, aside from maybe the Dos Equis guy, could possibly have had so much happen to them. Bacall’s role is of the secretary who marries into the weird, fucked up Hadley family, getting petulant, dissipated Robert Stack for a husband and amped-up nymphomaniac Dorothy Malone for a sister in law. Having to be more or less the calm center and occasionally the tragic victim of so much madness around her (the now-platinum blonde Malone tears it up and won an Oscar), Bacall seems to have been saddled with the straight-man role even though her character is also involved in a love, um, rectangle with Rock Hudson’s good-guy family friend. But even in a film as wildly over the top as ‘Written on the Wind,’ you can see Bacall maturing as an actress: Whatever tenuous connection to reality this film has, with its overtly stagy sets and florid, ostentatiously artificial design, is largely due to her unshowy underplaying as the film’s heart and moral compass. Everything else is gloriously entertaining, cleverly constructed, but shameless soap. Like the scene below, finding Stack sweeps secretary Bacall off her feet by setting her up in a suite brimming with flowers and with a closet full of ball gowns

Designing Woman” (1957)
Often mistakenly described as a remake of the Spencer Tracy/Katharine Hepburn classic “Woman of the Year,” this battle-of-the-sexes comedy is in fact its own thing, despite similar premises. Originally intended for Grace Kelly and James Stewart before Kelly decided to marry her Prince, the Oscar-winning script instead fell into the hands of Gregory Peck and Lauren Bacall, neither noted for their comedic work, especially during this stage of their careers, and yet who both strike exactly the right frothy, back-and-forth, bantering tone. It’s particularly remarkable from Bacall if you consider that while the film was shooting, her husband Bogart was dying —she had taken the previous year off to nurse him, but her returning to work on this film had reportedly been his idea. She later referred to the filming as almost like therapy with respect to the pain vigils at home, and certainly no grief haunts this lighthearted odd-couple comedy, in which a pair of newlyweds, a high fashion designer and a bachelor sports writer, have to negotiate misunderstandings and getting-to-know-you complications following a whirlwind romance. Director Vincente Minelli keeps the movie spinning along with wit and warmth, especially in clever use of ironic he-says/she-says voiceover and there’s real chemistry between old friends Peck and Bacall. And even if the set up and some of the gags have dated poorly, Bacall’s wardrobe is never less than exquisite and the battle-of-the-wits sparring between the two, as well as Bacall’s innate intelligence and aura of independence suggest an equality of agency even when the narrative undercuts it.

Supporting Performances & Honorable mentions: We wanted to concentrate our main picks on Bacall’s lead roles, but she turned in some excellent supporting performances, especially later in her career at an age where leads are much harder to come by. She gained her only Oscar nomination (though she was awarded an honorary Oscar in 2010) for a film she herself agreed was ”not a great picture but a very good part” as the conniving, vain, overbearing mother of Barbara Streisand’s character in “The Mirror has Two Faces.” She also played a memorable role in Lars von Trier’s experimental “Dogville” (and returned for its less successful follow-up “Manderlay”) and played again opposite “Dogville” star Nicole Kidman in the vastly underrated “Birth” from Jonathan Glazer, which if you haven’t been persuaded to watch yet despite all our hollering, well, you’re incorrigible. Bacall also played James Caan’s agent in the terrific “Misery” and one of the central trio of “walkees” in Paul Schrader’s undervalued “The Walker.”

In largely forgotten, deconstructionist take on film noir “Harper,” starring Paul Newman and Janet Leigh, Bacall’s presence was a sly nod back to “The Big Sleep” and it’s an interesting film that’s worth seeking out. She also played alongside John Wayne in his final performance “The Shootist,” which is undoubtedly far more his film than hers, in being a farewell to audiences and to the Western myth in general for The Duke, but she’s impressively steely as the widow whose good opinion he finally earns. And last but not least Bacall played the hard-bitten brains of the gold-digging operation in “How to Marry a Millionaire.” The comedy, which co-starred Betty Grable and Marilyn Monroe, isn’t that great, in that it’s so archaic in its gender roles that it’s occasionally hard to watch, especially seeing Bacall trying to fit the square peg of her flinty, individualist persona into the round hole of a calculating schemer on the lookout for a rich husband, but it does give her a few sweet lines. Our favorite among them is probably the meta-referential moment when her character, Schatze is extolling the virtues of older men marrying younger women: “Look at Roosevelt, look at Churchill, look at old fella, what’s his name in ‘The African Queen.’”

A charismatic, poised and graceful performer, Lauren Bacall always gave the impression of there being so much more to her than met the eye, even though what met the eye was so very lovely. Share with us your own favorite Bacall moments below, but for now, this is how we always want to remember her: zinging Bogie about Marcel Proust. 

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