Lauren Bacall: A Farewell Look at “The Look”

LAUREN BACALLIt’s hard to believe that actress Lauren Bacall, who passed away in her native New York on Tuesday at the age of 89, received but a single Academy Award nomination. What’s even more inconceivable is that it didn’t come until after she had marked her 50th anniversary in the movies. From the time she made her film bow as a teenager in 1944, her sultry. hard-edged sensuality, smoky tones, and trademark pose that was dubbed “The Look”  made the actress an always-welcome presence on screen, stage and TV over more than seven decades.

Born in the Bronx in September of 1924 to a salesman and a secretary, Betty Joan Perske had her sights set on acting by high school and enrolled in the American Academy of Dramtic Arts, getting her first off-Broadway and modeling opportunities by her late teens. A cover appearance on Harper’s Bazaar brought her to the attention of director Howard Hawks’s wife, who convinced her husband to bring Bacall out west for a screen test. The result was a new name (Lauren at Hawks’s suggestion; the surname adapted from her mother’s Romanian family) and the female lead in Warner Bros.’ 1944 adaptation of Ernest Hemingway’s To Have and Have Not.

The neophyte actress was partnered with the studio’s top male star, Humphrey Bogart. In her 1980 autobiography Lauren Bacall: By Myself, she recalled how nervous she was during the film’s production, particularly in a scene where Bogart tossed a matchbox to her. “My hand was shaking, my head was shaking, the cigarette was shaking, I was mortified,” she wrote. “The harder I tried to stop, the more I shook. … I realized that one way to hold my trembling head still was to keep it down, chin low, almost to my chest, and eyes up at Bogart. It worked and turned out to be the beginning of The Look.”

TO HAVE AND HAVE NOTDespite her nerves, the chemistry between the pair was palpable, especially in the oft-quoted scene where lounge singer Marie “Slim” Browning (Bacall) tells fishing boat captain Harry “Steve” Morgan (Bogart) “You know you don’t have to act with me, Steve. You don’t have to say anything, and you don’t have to do anything, not a thing. Oh, maybe just whistle. You know how to whistle, don’t you, Steve? You just put your lips together…and blow.” That on-screen attraction soon carried through behind the camera, despite the duo’s 25-year age difference and Bogart’s final attempts to save his crumbling third marriage, and he and Bacall wed in May of 1945.

BIG SLEEP, THE 1946Her sophomore picture with Warners, the 1945 espionage tale Confidential Agent with Charles Boyer, was not a success, but she returned to form when she and Bogie re-teamed for a trio of classic noir-flavored thrillers: The Big Sleep (1946), Dark Passage (1947) and Key Largo (1948). The duo also worked together alongside like-minded Hollywood notables–John Huston, Danny Kaye, Gene Kelly and Jayne Wyatt, among others–to form the Committee for the First Amendment, which spoke out against the House Un-American Activities Committee’s investigation of the motion picture industry, although they would later call a 1947 Washington visit “ill-advised.”

When her husband began working for other studios, Bacall stayed at Warner Bros. to star alongside Kirk Douglas and Gary Cooper, respectively, for the 1950 dramas Young Man with a Horn and Bright Leaf. The actress went to 20th Century-Fox–and shifted from serious to lighthearted fare–when she joined Marilyn Monroe and Betty Grable as a trio of husband-seeking Manhattanites in 1953’s How to Marry a Millionaire (where her character confesses “I’ve always liked older men. Look at that old fellow, what’s-his-name, in The African Queen…absolutely crazy about him.”).

WRITTEN ON THE WINDOther key ’50s performances included the boardroom/bedroom drama Woman’s World (1954), co-starring June Allyson, Fred MacMurray and Clifton Webb; the medical soaper The Cobweb (1955), with Boyer and Richard Widmark; alongside John Wayne for Blood Alley (also ’55); Douglas Sirk’s Written on the Wind (1956), with Rock Hudson; and opposite Gregory Peck for Designing Woman (1957). During this time Bacall also managed to work with Bogart in a 1951-52 radio drama, Bold Venture, and a 1955 TV staging of The Petrified Forest. Bogart’s health, however, was already in decline, and he passed away from cancer of the esophagus in early 1957.

In the years after Bogart’s death, Bacall would begin spending more time in New York (moving into the famed Dakota apartment building, where she lived until her death) and on Broadway. Among her stage work were roles in Goodbye Charlie, Cactus Flower, Applause (the musical based on All About Eve) and Woman of the Year, and she earned Tony Awards for her performances in the last two. Following a brief romance with longtime friend Frank Sinatra, she would marry actor Jason Robards in 1961, a union that lasted nearly nine years and produced one son, actor Sam Robards (she had a son and a daughter during her marriage to Bogart).

BACALL, LAURENBacall didn’t totally abandon Hollywood, however; she appeared with Paul Newman in Harper (1966); was one of the murder suspects in the all-star Agatha Christie adaptation Murder on the Orient Express (1974); reunited with Blood Alley co-star Wayne for the Duke’s final film, The Shootist (1976); and played an actress who becomes a stalker’s obsession in the suspenser The Fan (1981). Supporting roles in such films as Misery (1990), Robert Altman’s Prêt-à-Porter (1994) and My Fellow Americans (1996)–plus frequent TV turns (including commercials using her unmistakable voice) and talk show appearances–kept her in the public eye. It was her performance as college professor Barbara Streisand’s mother in 1996’s The Mirror Has Two Faces, however, that would earn Bacall her one and only Academy Award nomination, for Best Supporting Actress (she would ultimately lose to The English Patient’s Juliette Binoche).

Still working well into her 70s and 80s, Bacall’s 21st-century resumé boasted such diverse work as roles in Danish director Lars Von Trier’s Dogville (2003) and Manderlay (2005); the romance dramas Birth (2004) and These Foolish Things (2006);  voice work in two animated features, Hayao Miyazaki’s Howl’s Moving Castle (2004) and Ernest & Celestine (2012) from France; and a cameo as herself, being mugged, in a 2006 episode of The Sporanos. As she said in a 1996 interview, “You just learn to cope with whatever you have to cope with. I spent my childhood in New York, riding on subways and buses. And you know what you learn if you’re a New Yorker? The world doesn’t owe you a damn thing.” Movie fans everywhere would certainly disagree with the outspoken actress on that last statement; the world owes Lauren Bacall a great deal for bringing her distinctive beauty and style to the screen in so many classic performances.