Bacall: Bogie’s Baby & The Look

14 Sep
Betty Bacall

The one and only Lauren Bacall, the very definition of “Hollywood royalty” (per a line in 1981’s Mommie Dearest), but Bacall was scrappy, a survivor who candidly documented her life’s many ups and downs in her book, By Myself (1978), which I read a long, long, time ago. She begins by describing a time as a teen she got busted for smoking when vintage concoction Sen-sen failed to hide her tobacco breath. She also recounted her relationship with Frank Sinatra, with whom she co-starred in Harper, and a tumultuous marriage to Jason Robards Jr., the father of her third child.

In celebration of the late Lauren Bacall’s birthday, Turner Classic Movies is running a Bacall marathon, beginning on Monday, 9/15/2014, and continuing through Tuesday, 9/16/2014.

We all know Lauren Bacall was Bogie’s baby. Bogie’s bride to be more precise, but in spite of her grand dame no-nonsense persona, she often played the role of the bridesmaid and only rarely the bride. I’m referring specifically to the 1996/97 Oscars. After decades in the movie biz, and a helluva late-start Broadway career, Bacall scored her first ever Oscar nod, oh about 50 years after making her film debut. Her nod came for her characteristically take-charge performance as Barbra Streisand’s glamorous, domineering ma in the latter’s Americanized remake of The Mirror Has Two Faces (a loose update on a similarly titled French movie from the late 1950s). In Streisand’s scenario, her brilliant, if mousey, English professor just can’t catch a break in a family dominated by such beauties as sister Mimi Rogers and her still vibrant mother, a widow who works as a makeup artist and still entertains her share of gentlemen callers. Babs feels as though mamala thinks less of her because she’s not a looker in the same league as everyone else, and mom really doesn’t help. She’d rather avoid the conversation. The role is a bit of a risk for Bacall because she sometimes comes across as cruel rather than nurturing, the way we want and expect mothers to be; however, director Streisand wisely waits for just the right moment to expose the mother’s vulnerability, and Bacall rises to the occasion expertly, exquisitely.

So, there we all were the night of the Oscars, and Bacall seemed poised for victory by almost any standard, not the least of which was the fact that in the preceeding weeks and months she had won both the Golden Globe and the Screen Actors Guild award, among other honors; however, when Kevin Spacey (the year’s previous Best Supporting Actor for The Usual Suspects) announced the winner, he called Juliet Binoche to the podium for her most excellent performance in the year’s leading contender, The English Patient (a choice that somehow suddenly seemed right to me even though I was actually rooting for neither her nor Bacall but Barbara Hershey in Portrait of a Lady). In her acceptance speech, Binoche could not have been more gracious as she exclaimed that she expected to Bacall to win, and that she thought Bacall really deserved to win. That kind of heartfelt tribute always sounds better with a lilting French accent. Oui. You can find the clip on YouTube.

So, on what should have been her big night, Lauren Bacall, a towering figure from Hollwood’s Golden Age still fighting the good fight, was upstaged–the bridesmaid to Binoche’s bride. Oh sure, several years later Bacall won an Oscar of her own, an honorary one for a lifetime of work, but in accordance with new Academy policy regarding non-competitive awards, Bacall was not feted during the annual televised ceremony, per se, lest 14 year old boys fidget and change the channel. Instead, Bacall’s tribute came a few months prior, November of 2009, and was recapped at the actual Oscar bash the following year.

Bogie-and-Lauren-Bacall-in-To-Have-and-Have-Not

Obligatory shot of Bogie (left) and Bacall (right)

I kind of feel the same way about Bacall’s passing last month, almost a month shy of what would have been her 90th birthday. Unfortunately for Bacall’s family, friends, and fans, her death was overshadowed by the shocking news of Oscar winner Robin Williams’s suicide a day earlier. Oh sure, Bacall’s demise generated plenty of press though not nearly the same magnitude as Williams’s untimely end. The same thing happened five years ago when 1970s bombshell Farrah Fawcett passed away the same day as longtime music sensation Michael Jackson. Fawcett died the morning of June 25 after a brave battle with cancer, but reports of Jackson’s death–under mysterious circumstances–later the same day grabbed more and more headlines though, of course, none of this should be a contest.

My own life has been remarkably difficult this year due to a series of family accidents, horrific illnesses, and, yes, death. I felt pressed to write about Willams, and I wrote as much as I thought I could under difficult circumstances, so I feel okay about that even though I thought I would add a few more pics and reminiscences. Then, I started writing about Bacall, and when I couldn’t be as timely about it as I would’ve liked, I skipped it. The same thing happened when Shirley Temple, James Garner, and Paul Mazursky passed, and I hate that, but my journalistic–as well as life–training tells me that timing is everything. Even a blog needs to be timely, so here I am trying to write about Bacall yet again on the eve of what appears to be a Bacall celebration this week on Turner Classic Movies, timed, precisely, to mark the occasion of her birthday: a marathon on Monday, 09/15, and Tuesday, 09/16 (her actual b’day).

Here’s what I wrote but never finished though I always intended to write about losing the Oscar and being overshadowed in death by Williams…

Poster - How to Marry a Millionaire_02

^ Cinemascope was one of many film features invented during the 1950s to compete with the booming TV medium. Whereas movies up to that point had been presented in a more technically square format (even majestic Gone with the Wind), widescreen presentations, such as Cinemascope, gave moviegoers an experience not easily replicated at home. How to Marry a Millionaire, in which Bacall (r) co-starred with Betty Grable (l) and top-billed Marilyn Monroe (center) was one of the first widescreen releases. It came out the same year as The Robe, which was released first though technically completed after How to Marry a Millionaire wrapped. This movie is one of my most pleasing of so-called guilty pleasures. I will watch it anytime I come across it while clicking through TV channels; moreover, I can put it in the machine on a Friday night and watch it multiple times over the weekend (sometimes back-to-back), and Bacall, as much as I love Monroe, is the main reason. As model Schatze Page, she’s so remarkably self-possessed that it’s hard not to get caught up in her bravado even when she’s clueless and self-defeating. Even more amazing is how young Bacall was at the time: 29 and counting. Of course, this whole thing is a fantasy that has nothing to do with real life. It’s also best kept in context as it does women no favors by painting them as single minded gold-diggers. On the other hand, reality TV shows us that there are still plenty of women ready to play the same role even though we presumably live in more progressive, more enlightened times.

Lauren Bacall, nee Betty Jane Perske, rose to full-fledged star status with her first film role, opposite Humphrey Bogart in 1944’s To Have and Have Not; she was barely 20 years old at the time, a New York model and stage actress, but there was something irresistibly worldly, self-possessed about her as though she could have only been dreamed up by a Hollywood screenwriter.  She wasn’t beautiful like Hedy Lamarr, Ingrid Bergman, or Rita Hayowrth, yet she was stunningly good looking, but, more importantly, she knew how to play to the camera. “The Look,” she became known as thanks to a signature pose: chin down, leonine gaze directed upward, all framed by a silken, side-parted cascade of hair. And then there was that voice: unmistakably deep and sultry, the aural equivalent of a martini–a gin martini–with cracked ice. As To Have and Have Not‘s “Slim” (a nod to Slim Keith, director Howard Hawks’s  equally worldly wife), Bacall made a brazen pass at Bogie’s character when she purred, “You know how to whistle, don’t you, Steve? You just put your lips together and… blow.” And, no, she was not dubbed by Andy Williams when she sang in the film, contrary to legend.

Here’s where I’ve resumed…

Bogie was hooked. The two were married a year later, this in spite of a 25 year age difference. She was Bogie’s baby, all right, and they made three more films together: The Big Sleep, Dark Passage, and Key Largo, the latter of which inspired a hit song by Bertie Higgins in the early 1980s: “We had it all / Just like Bogie and Bacall / Starring in our own late late show / Sailin’ away to Key Largo.”  So closely was Bacall identified with Bogie that her character even cracked wise about a fascination with older men, beginning with Bogart’s Oscar winning The African Queen, in 1953’s How to Marry a Millionaire, co-starring Marilyn Monroe and Betty Grable. Btw, all the Bogie-Bacall movies as well as How to Marry a Millionaire will be featured in the TCM event.

charlotte-rampling-nars

I’ve always thought that smoldering Charlotte Rampling, with her sharp cheekbones and husky voice, was her generation’s answer to Bacall as though she were specially designed for film noir. and that includes 1975’s Farewell, My Lovely with Robert Mitchum stepping into the role of Philip Marlowe–made famous by Humphrey Bogart in The Bg Sleep. She’s got “the look.”  I’m thrilled that Rampling continues to be a formidable presence. At 68, she was recently announced as the new face of Francois Nars cosmetics. If you haven’t caught up with her in 2003’s wickedly suspenseful Swimming Pool, you surely must.

After Bogart died in 1957, Bacall, a young mom with two children, had to reinvent herself and eventually did so by going back to the theatre, to New York, where she began. Oh, she continued to act in movies, but Hollywood didn’t know what to do with her….yet. She had to prove that she was more than Bogie’s baby.

She starred as a lothario reincarnated as a woman in Goodbye Charlie, a so-so play that nonetheless proved popular enough to warrant a film adaptation starring–not Bacall, the bridesmaid–Debbie Reynolds. A bit later, Bacall enjoyed a true Broadway success when she played the dental assistant roped into a harebrained scheme with her boss to fool the dentist’s jilted mistress [3]  into believing that Bacall is/was really his wife. Something like that. The play ran for almost three years, and Hollywood came a knockin’ but not as far as Bacall was concerned. She lost her role–the proverbial late bloomer–to Ingrid Bergman of all people–Bogie’s Casablanca co-star. Again, always a bridemaid…

Still, Bacall eventually scored two huge Broadway smashes. First, she secured the role of  aging tart-tongued diva Margo Channing in 1970’s Applause, the musical version of 1950’s smash, Oscar winning All About Eve. Against incredible odds, Bacall put her own stamp on a role made legendary by no less than Bette Davis. Bacall won her first Tony, and the show won a spate of other honors including Best Musical (the show also featured a Tony nominated turn by future TV regular Bonnie Franklin who actually sang the rollicking title tune). She went on to recreate the role in a special televised production and earned an Emmy nod in the process.  Bacall proved that Applause was no fluke when she won her second Tony for Woman of the Year in a role originated by Katherine Hepburn. Bacall’s competition that year included no less than Linda Ronstadt in Joseph Papp’s massively popular restaging of Gilbert and Sullivan’s Pirates of Penzance.

Kathleen Turner

Kathleen Turner hasn’t had a powerful leading role in a hit movie in more than a decade, but back in the 1980s, she was one of the most bankable actresses in the biz, and performances in neo-noir Body Heat and mafia themed black comedy Prizzi’s Honor clearly highlighted her Bacall-esque appeal. She’s got “the look” too.

Bacall’s Broadway success actually ignited renewed interest in Hollywood, and soon she was in front of cameras again in Agatha Christie’s classic star-studded whodunit, Murder on the Orient Express (directed by Sidney Lumet, 1974), luxuriating in her role as a colorful, seen-it-all, wealthy widow. She also attracted the attention of maverick director Robert Altman who featured her in a pair of films, HealtH (1980) and Pret-a-Porter (aka Ready to Wear, 1994). Just as the curtain rose for Woman of the Year, Bacall appeared on film as a Broadway star in The Fan, opposite James Garner with whom she shared the screen, both big and small, on multiple occasions. She also played the female lead in John Wayne’s final film, The Shootist (1976).

Bacall is a legend, and legends don’t die easily. Besides her incredible body of work in film, TV and theatre, she has influenced generations with her good looks, style, and passion. Not only was she immortalized in Higgins’s tune, Madonna referred to her in the classic 1990’s dance track “Vogue.”  Now, all of the luminaries mentioned in that classic ditty have passed, but, of course, they still live as style icons, and who or what is more iconic than “The Look”?

Thanks, Betty….

Bacall marathon at Turner Classic Movies: http://www.tcm.com/this-month/movie-news.html?id=1025725

More on Cinemascope at Widescreen Mueum: http://www.widescreenmuseum.com/widescreen/wingcs3.htm

[3] Brenda Vaccaro, born in New York but raised in Dallas, played the mistress in the Broadway production of Cactus Flower and earned a Tony nod, as Best Featured Actress, for her efforts. She also lost missed the chance to recreate her role for the movie version, losing the role to rising star Goldie Hawn, who nabbed the Academy’s Best Supporting Actress statuette.

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