Lauren Bacall gave so many indelible performances it’s hard to know where to start in looking back over her career. But as much as her roles in “To Have and Have Not” and “The Big Sleep,” which are among the tiny handful for which the word “iconic” is not simple puffery, I’m drawn back to her 2006 guest spot on “The Sopranos” episode “Luxury Lounge.” It’s a particularly low moment for Christopher Moltisanti (Michael Imperioli), which the show illustrates by having him try to snatch an awards-show gift basket out of the elderly legend’s hands, and when she resists, punching her right in her legendary face. (Video via Slate.)
It’s a genuinely shocking moment — Screencrush’s Mike Ryan recalled emitting an audible gasp the first time he watched it — not least for Bacall’s willingness to play the part. How many actresses of her stature would have agree to a glorified walk-on, and how many could have made so much out of a few seconds of screen time? (The answer, if you’re playing at home, is none.)
Even in her 80s, Bacall retained the no-bullshit spirit that made her a star: I interviewed her for Paul Schrader’s “The Walker” in 2007 — the movie never opened, so the piece never ran — and my principal memory is of her stilling my frantically gesticulating hands with a pleasant but firm grip. That same firmness kept her from being a bigger star — she spurned Howard Hawks’ romantic overtures and drew Warner Bros. wrath by turning down a string of subpar roles — but it made her even greater in the long run. She didn’t work often in her later years, but nearly everything she did was interesting, whether voicing a witch in Hayao Miyazaki’s “Howl’s Moving Castle” or serving as part of Lars Von Trier’s Brechtian ensemble in “Dogville” and “Manderlay.” And she let Christopher Moltisanti punch her in the face — the face that once called out to Hawks from a Harper’s Bazaar cover, that quickened millions of pulses and still has the power to stop you in your tracks. Even wrestling Christopher for a basket full of goodies, she was still a star, but she was one with no interest in preserving her own legend — a term she rebuffed, preferring to focus on her present and her future. The legend, and the performances that spawned it, are all we have left now, but Bacall’s refusal to slip away quietly or coast on her past accomplishments is one reason why she was worth watching right up to the end.