The grand dame of Hollywood's Golden Age was an intimidating screen presence in a career spanning 70 years.
13 Aug 2014 - 3:09 PM  UPDATED 13 Aug 2014 - 3:41 PM

“And the hits just keep on coming,” remarked a friend, with bitter irony, as he posted news of Lauren Bacall’s death, at age 89, to Facebook. “What a shit week,” someone else wrote, under it—and it’s kind of hard to disagree. But whatever sadness we feel at Ms. Bacall’s passing (and she was always Ms. Bacall: it’s almost unimaginable to think of her simply as ‘Lauren’), it should be unalloyed by regret. She lived a long and extraordinary life, and did remarkable and enduring work. She leaves nothing unfinished, nothing to wish for. Her reputation, like the mystery she embodied, an essential remoteness that was often mistaken for come-hither enticement, is secure.

For most eulogists, it’s her time with Bogart which will define her. Certainly, it was the crucial relationship of her life. She met him when she was just 19, in 1944, after she’d been spotted by Howard Hawks’ wife Nancy Keith on the cover of Harper’s Bazaar. Intrigued, the director sought her out, and cast in his forthcoming Hemingway adaptation To Have and Have Not—a book he considered garbage, and which he revised extensively, both with the author and, later, with a broke and alcoholic William Faulkner.

The shoot was problematic. The Roosevelt administration pressured Warner Bros. to shift the story’s setting from Cuba to Martinique, in order to maintain a ‘good neighbour’ policy with the former, and the producers made strenuous attempts to replicate the mood (and thereby the success) of Casablanca—right down to the introduction of a friendly bar pianist/confessor. The result, unsurprisingly, bore only a passing resemblance to Hemingway’s original novel. On-set, though, the chemistry between Bogart and his leading lady was immediate and undeniable; before long, he’d separated from his then-wife Mayo Methot and married the ingénue, 25 years his junior.

"She always gave the impression [...] that the movies needed her far more than she needed them"

They did three subsequent films together: the Raymond Chandler adaptation The Big Sleep (1946), for Hawks again, and another noir, Dark Passage, the following year; then Key Largo (1948) for director John Huston. But there was also work without Bogart, and work after him. He succumbed to cancer in January 1957, leaving her a widow at just 32, and she mourned him and buried him and continued to make movies—despite her reportedly contentious relationship with Jack Warner, whom she accused of not caring overly about the quality of the films in which he put her.

But then, she was always picky about scripts, always a fan of good writing, and in the industrial, rigidly hierarchical environment of the Hollywood studio system, this inevitably led to a reputation for being ‘difficult.’ There was reportedly little that was warm about Bacall—I still remember watching her freeze out Nicole Kidman, at a press conference for Lars von Trier’s Dogville—but I don’t think she should be castigated for not wanting to waste her time on projects she considered unworthy and undeserving of it. Indeed, perhaps the most fascinating things about her was her inverse relationship to celebrity: she always gave the impression that she had many other things she could do, probably just as well and perhaps even better, and that the movies needed her far more than she needed them.

It’s one of the crucial ways in which she differs from today’s female stars, who lack most of her allure (just compare her voice—low, measured, erotic—to the pubescent squeak of most modern-day actresses) and all of her cool; I’m sure she watched them—if she noticed them at all—with cool, amused disdain: grasping and desperate for something which she knew, which she had always known, was so ephemeral as to be worthless. (‘When a woman reaches 26 in America,’ she once remarked, ‘she's on the slide. It's downhill all the way from then on. It doesn't give you a tremendous feeling of confidence and well-being.’)

Yet I would hate to think that, in the rush to exalt her collaboration with Bogie, her other great screen work is overlooked. She’s especially good in Douglas Sirk’s melodrama Written on the Wind (1956), as a career gal whose ambitions are first encouraged and then thwarted by her marriage to an alcoholic oil magnate (played by Robert Stack), and the infatuation of another, poorer but less self-destructive man (Rock Hudson). Bacall reportedly didn’t think much of the film, but for once she was wrong: it’s one of Sirk’s greatest achievements, and regarded today as one of the key Hollywood films of its decade.

But she could also do comedy—of course: her timing is impeccable—and she’s fantastic in Jean Negulesco’s How to Marry a Millionaire (1957), playing opposite Marilyn Monroe and Betty Grable, as the smartest of three gold-diggers out to land rich husbands in New York City. Shot in CinemaScope and in Technicolor, it looks gorgeous, and beside the ditziness of her co-stars, Bacall’s so serene and self-aware, so thoroughly self-sufficient, you wonder why she’s bothering to look for a man at all.

Perhaps, as in real life, the standard set by Bogie was hard to surpass. (In this respect, the film is also playfully meta-textual: at one point her character, Schatze, notes that, “I've always liked older men. Look at that old fellow, what's-his-name in The African Queen. Absolutely crazy about him.”)

The same year, she shot Designing Woman for director Vincente Minnelli, indebted both in pacing and in tone to the classic 30s screwball comedies. She starred opposite Gregory Peck (the template for this kind of movie, Cary Grant, was offered the male lead, but turned the part down), and the result proved a critical and commercial hit. An earlier collaboration with Minnelli, meanwhile, 1955’s The Cobweb, remains one of her most underrated and little-seen roles: as a crisply efficient staff member at an elite psychiatric facility, she co-starred with Richard Widmark and Gloria Graham—and unsurprisingly, seemed the sanest person in the whole place.

"She was, of course, a Hollywood legend, one of the very last."

The next few decades, however, were lean ones; like many Golden Age stars, Bacall’s career foundered with the decline of the studio system and the rise of television. Her most notable part in the 1970s was co-starring in John Wayne’s valedictory final picture, The Shootist (1976), well directed by Don Siegel and co-starring a young Ron Howard. The 1980s saw her pop up occasionally on TV, gracing otherwise undistinguished telemovies like A Little Piece of Sunshine. But in 1994 she emerged from what had come to seem like a permanent retirement, as part of the ensemble cast (alongside Sophia Loren and Marcello Mastroianni) of Robert Altman’s Prêt-à-Porter. The film was a mess, but it was a relief to see her back, as intimidatingly smart and effortlessly classy as ever.

She worked for Lars von Trier, not once but twice, returning after Dogville for further Brecht-inspired suffering in Mandalay. But her last onscreen role of real substance is in Jonathan Glazer’s Birth (2004), again alongside Nicole Kidman. It’s only two-thirds of a great film (screenwriter Jean-Claude Carrière doesn’t quite know how to resolve his extraordinary premise), but her Upper East Side matriarch is note-perfect: icily imperious, utterly compelling. As ever, when she’s onscreen, you simply can’t look at anything else.

Appropriately, she’s spent the past few years doing voice-work, on the English-language versions of Ernest & Celestine and Miyazaki’s Howl’s Moving Castle; weirdly, her most recent credit was an episode of Family Guy. Which says something about the historical era she spanned: from Howard Hawks to Seth MacFarlane...

She was, of course, a Hollywood legend, one of the very last. How legendary? Put it this way, on IMDB, she’s ‘nm0000002’. (Fred Astaire is number 1.) Yet there was nothing remotely LA about her: she was a New York broad—born in the Bronx, she died in Manhattan; a Jewish liberal and a born sophisticate. And as such, she had no illusions, either about the times she occupied, or the increasingly debased industry in which she worked. ‘We live,’ she once sighed, ‘in an age of mediocrity.’ Well, it’s a little more mediocre now she’s gone.