“Okay. You know you don’t have to act with me. 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 ya Steve? You just put your lips together and blow.”
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These are the words that Lauren Bacall said to Humphrey Bogart during their first scene together in her first film, “To Have and Have Not,” directed by Howard Hawks in 1944. After she left the room during that scene, the young unknown woman became a star. It wasn’t just the provocative words that did the trick; her low voice and the come-hither stare she flashed at Bogart played a part as well. It was not long after that the PR people started calling her “The Look,” marketing that trademark look of hers.
The 1950s film “And God Created Woman” is believed to have launched the career of Brigitte Bardot, though it wasn’t her first. Much in that vein, Howard Hawks created Lauren Bacall, who passed away Tuesday at age 89. Perhaps Hawks owes some of the credit to his then-wife Nancy “Slim” Keith, as he gave her nickname, Slim, to Bacall’s character in their film. Hawks was known for giving roles to beautiful women with strong personalities, and he looked for such an actress to fill a role in his next film, based on the novel by Ernest Hemingway and a script partly written by William Faulkner. Hawks’s wife first saw the 19-year-old Bacall’s picture on the cover of fashion magazine Harper’s Bazaar and suggested that he meet with her.
The two met and Hawks was impressed with everything but her voice. He said it was too high and instructed her to retreat into the hills surrounding Los Angeles and scream at the top of her lungs for hours each day, hoping that her voice would take on the low, sexy tone he was looking for. It worked, not just for Hawks, and not just on the fans who responded warmly to the new star, but on her costar, Humphrey Bogart, as well.
Lauren Bacall was born Betty Joan Perske in 1924, in the Bronx, to Jewish parents of Romanian and Polish descent (she was a distant relative of former President Shimon Peres). Her father was a traveling salesman and her mother was a secretary. They divorced when Bacall was five. She took her mother’s last name, Weinstein-Bacal, though she dropped the first part and added an extra L, as Jewish-sounding last names were not conducive to successful careers during that time in America.
She aspired to be a dancer, decided on acting, and took lessons at the American Academy of Dramatic Arts in New York. She appeared in a few shows and worked as a model. That brought her to Slim, Hawks and Bogart. The 45-year-old Bogart was on his third marriage when he met Bacall, and a romance between the two developed almost immediately. Their relationship bolstered ticket sales, though it also made headlines, both for the romance of it (the veteran movie star Bogart and the emerging starlet, starring together in a romantic film fell in love!), and also because Bogart’s wife, Mayo Methot, contributed to the drama by making scenes about it both on and off stage. Methot and Bogart had been known for their public outbursts. They divorced in 1945 and he married Bacall 10 days later. They had two children and remained married until Bogart died in 1957 at age 57.
Bogart and Bacall (whose friends called her Betty) were one of the most famous couples in film history, both for their films and their public life. They starred in three other films together and all became classics: “The Big Sleep,” in 1945, also directed by Hawks and partly written by Faulkner, based on Raymond Chandler’s novel; “Dark Passages,” in 1947, directed by Delmer Daves, and John Huston’s “Key Largo,” in 1948, based on the play by Maxwell Anderson.
Bacall also continued working without Bogart. In 1950, she appeared alongside Gary Cooper in the period melodrama “Bright Leaf,” directed by Michael Curtiz (who also directed Bogart in “Casablanca”). In 1953 she starred with Betty Grable and Marilyn Monroe in “How to Marry a Millionaire,” directed by Jean Negulesco, which was a big hit, and one of the first films to be filmed in CinemaScope. In 1955 she appeared both in Vincente Minnelli’s “The Cobweb” and alongside John Wayne in William A. Wellman’s “Blood Alley.” In 1956, she starred with Rock Hudson in Douglas Sirk’s “Written on the Wind.” And in 1957 she starred alongside Gregory Peck in Minnelli’s romantic comedy “Designing Woman.”
After Bogart’s death her career began to dwindle, though she continued to appear in numerous films, mostly in supporting roles. When the French director François Truffaut visited Israel in 1980, I remember him telling me that color is not right for every face, specifically mentioning Lauren Bacall as an example of a woman more photogenic in black and white. There was something to that. None of her performances in color lived up to her earlier work.
Her later films included “Sex and the Single Girl,” directed by Richard Quine in 1964; “Harper,” a 1966 detective film starring Bacall and Paul Newman and directed by Jack Smight; Sidney Lumet’s “Murder on the Orient Express,” from 1974, in which Bacall was part of an ensemble cast; “The Shootist,” in 1976, John Wayne’s last film, directed by Don Siegel; “Health,” one of Robert Altman’s lesser films, from 1980; Rob Reiner’s “Misery” in 1990; Altman’s 1994 film “Ready to Wear”; Lars von Trier’s 2003 film “Dogville” and 2005 offering “Manderlay”; as well as Paul Schrader’s 2007 film “The Walker.”
Bacall also had a successful theater career, appearing in Broadway hits like “Cactus Flower” and “Applause,” a musical based on “All About Eve.” She danced and sang in her famous low voice, earning a Tony. In 1996, she was first nominated for an Oscar for best supporting actress for her performance as Barbara Streisand’s mother in the film “The Mirror Has Two Faces,” also directed by Streisand. Bacall was considered the favorite and I remember how she shook when the cameras were on her as Juliette Binoche’s name was called for her role in “The English Patient.” Even Binoche looked surprised, and on stage she congratulated Bacall and expressed her wishes for Bacall to win an Oscar in the future. In 2010, Bacall was honored with a special Oscar for her life’s work.
In 1961, Bacall married actor Jason Robards, who looked a little like Bogart. They had a son, Sam Robards, who also became an actor. They divorced in 1969.
Bacall was an outspoken Democrat. In 1947, in a move that was then considered especially daring, Bacall, Bogart and some of their friends from the business traveled to Washington to demonstrate against the U.S. House Un-American Activities Committee, which was investigating people and organizations with ties to communism. The protest didn’t harm her career, or Bogart’s, though it is only right that we remember this act, too.