R.I.P. Lauren Bacall

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This was the magazine cover that started it all. Howard Hawks was looking for a protege, a girl he could mold into his perfect woman who could play in those fabulous macho movies he made. His wife, “Slim” Hawks, saw 19-year-old Betty Perske on the cover of Harper’s Bazaar and showed it to her husband. Look at this girl. Look at how she looks at the camera. Is this kind of the girl you’ve been looking for? Betty was brought out to Hollywood for a battery of nervewracking screen-tests. She traveled with her mother. She had some acting training but nothing to the level required of her here. She just did what Mr. Hawks told her to do. He dressed her a certain way. He made her read the lines a certain way.

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He was developing a picture with Humphrey Bogart called To Have and Have Not, based on an Ernest Hemingway story. He needed a girl. A girl who could play a thief, a love interest, a girl who gave as good as she got. His dream-girl was “insolent”, the word he kept whispering in Bacall’s ear, a girl who could be AS “insolent” as Bogart. A girl who could keep up with the boys without sacrificing her femininity. He didn’t like silly women. He cast her in To Have and Have Not. She was given her new name: “Lauren Bacall.” Bogart heard the news and stopped her in the hall at the studio, saying to her, “We’ll have a lot of fun together.”

Truer words …

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Her debut in To Have and Have Not is one of the best film debuts in history. You cannot take your eyes off of her. It made her an instant star. Her first entrance is unforgettable. “Anybody got a match?” She, a virgin at the time, with almost no experience with men, had sexually explicit dialogue which was barely euphemistic:

Hot as hell. She was able to channel her nerves, her fear, into a cool coiled character, sexually knowing, unflappable, with a sizzling hot interior. This is the power of her imagination, as well as her total trust in Howard Hawks.

The nation went insane for her. So did Harry Truman.

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It was the start of a now-legendary career as well as the start of her marriage to Humphrey Bogart. They would appear in four pictures together, movies that changed my conception of what onscreen romance could be, should be.

There will be more to say. I’m reeling, frankly. I love her so much. She had a wonderful long life, and many phases of her career. She loved to WORK. She took RISKS. She sang on Broadway, when she couldn’t really sing at all. She appeared in weird Lars von Trier movies. She did not rest on her laurels. She worked, man. She liked to WORK.

I miss her already.

Here is an excerpt from her excellent autobiography (the first one). Here, she describes the whole To Have and Have Not buildup.

EXCERPT FROM By Myself, by Lauren Bacall

One day a couple of weeks before the picture was to start, I was about to walk into Howard’s office when Humphrey Bogart came walking out. He said, “I just saw your test. We’ll have a lot of fun together.” Howard told me Bogart had truly liked the test and would be very helpful to me.

I kept Mother up to date on developments, sending lists of people to call with the news – Diana Vreeland, Louise Dahl-Wolfe, Nicky de Gunzburg, Tim Brooke – with instructions to keep it to themselves. I couldn’t write to anyone – only Mother!

Call Fred Spooner – tell him I saved $48 this week and will try to do the same next week. Had to spend $20 on a new clutch for my car … Send me slacks … Send me this – that – everything … Sat opposite Bette Davis in the Greenroom the other day – she stared at me – maybe she thought I looked familiar – Ha! Ha! Went to dinner and to see Casablanca! – watching Bogie [whom I barely knew]. The picture isn’t scheduled to start until Tuesday now – but frankly I don’t think it’ll begin until a week from tomorrow [that would be the next Monday]. They have to change the locale from Cuba to Martinique. Political difficulties, because as it stands now, characters and story don’t reflect too well on Cuba. Have been working hard at the studio every day. I think I’m going to do my own singing! [I’d been having singing lessons every day.]

The picture didn’t begin until the following Tuesday. I had tested the wardrobe – hair – makeup. Sid Hickox had photographed them with Howard present, experimenting as he went, as Howard wanted me to look in the movie.

Walter Brennan had been cast in a large part, Marcel Dalio, Walter Surovy (Rise Stevens’ husband), Sheldon Leonard, Dan Seymour – of course Hoagy. I went into the set the first day of shooting to see Howard and Bogart – I would not be working until the second day. Bogart’s wife, Mayo Methot, was there – he introduced us. I talked to Howard, watched for a while, and went home to prepare me for my own first day.

It came and I was ready for a straitjacket. Howard had planned to do a single scene that day – my first in the picture. I walked to the door of Bogart’s room, said, “Anybody got a match?”, leaned against the door, and Bogart threw me a small box of matches. I lit my cigarette, looking at him, said, “Thanks,” threw the matches back to him, and left. Well – we rehearsed it. My hand was shaking – my head was shaking – the cigarette was shaking. I was mortified. The harder I tried to stop, the more I shook. What must Howard be thinking? What must Bogart be thinking? What must the crew be thinking? Oh, God, make it stop! I was in such pain.

Bogart tried to joke me out of it – he was quite aware that I was a new young thing who knew from nothing and was scared to death. Finally Howard thought we could try a take. Silence on the set. The bell rang. “Quiet – we’re rolling,” said the sound man. “Action,” said Howard. This was for posterity, I thought – for real theatres, for real people to see. I came around the corner, said my first line, and Howard said, “Cut.” He had broken the scene up – the first shot ended after the first line. The second set-up was the rest of it – then he’d move in for close-ups. By the end of the third or fourth take, 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”.

I found out very quickly that day what a terrific man Bogart was. He did everything possible to put me at ease. He was on my side. I felt safe – I still shook, but I shook less. He was not even remotely a flirt. I was, but I didn’t flirt with him. There was much kidding around – our senses of humor went well together. Bogie’s idea, of course, was that to make me laugh would relax me. He was right to a point, but nothing on earth would have relaxed me completely!

The crew were wonderful – fun and easy. It was a very happy atmosphere. I would often go to lunch with HOward. One day he told me he was very happy with the way I was working, but that I must remain somewhat aloof from the crew. Barbara Stanwyck, whom he thought very highly of – he’d made Ball of Fire with her, a terrific movie – was always fooling around with the crew, and he thought it a bad idea. “They don’t like you any better for it. When you finish a scene, go back to your dressing room. Don’t hang around the set – don’t give it all away – save it for the scenes.” He wanted me in a cocoon, only to emerge for work. Bogart could fool around to his heart’s content – he was a star and a man – “though you notice he doesn’t do too much of it.”

One day at lunch when Howard was mesmerizing me with himself and his plans for me, he said, “Do you notice how noisy it is in here suddenly? That’s because Leo Forbstein just walked in – Jews always make more noise.” I felt that I was turning white, but I said nothing. I was afraid to – a side of myself I have never liked or been proud of – a side that was always there. Howard didn’t dwell on it ever, but clearly he had very definite ideas about Jews – none too favorable, though he did business with them. They paid him – they were good for that. I would have to tell him about myself eventually or he’d find out through someone else. When the time came, what would happen would happen, but I had no intention of pushing it.

Howard started to line up special interviews for me. Nothing big would be released until just before the picture, and everything would be chosen with the greatest care. Life, Look, Kyle Crichton for Collier’s, Pic, Saturday Evening Post. Only very special fan magazines. Newspapers. I probably had more concentrated coverage than any beginning young actress had ever had – due to Hawks, not me.

Hoagy Carmichael had written a song called “Baltimore Oriole”. Howard was going to use it as my theme music in the movie – every time I appeared on screen there were to be strains of that song. He thought it would be marvelous if I could be always identified with it – appear on Bing Crosby’s or Bob Hope’s radio show, have the melody played, have me sing it, finally have me known as the “Baltimore Oriole”. What a fantastic fantasy life Howard must have had! His was a glamorous, mysterious, tantalizing vision – but it wasn’t me.

On days I didn’t have lunch with Howard, I would eat with another actor or the publicity man or have a sandwich in my room or in the music department during a voice lesson. I could not sit at a table alone. Bogie used to lunch at the Lakeside Golf Club, which was directly across the road from the studio.

One afternoon I walked into Howard’s bungalow, and found a small, gray-haired, mustached, and attractive man stretched out on the couch with a book in his hand and a pipe in his mouth. That man was William Faulkner. He was contributing to the screenplay. Howard loved Faulkner – they had known each other a long time, had hunted together. Faulkner never had much money and Howard would always hire him for a movie when he could. He seldom came to the set – he was very shy – he liked it better in Howard’s office.

Howard had a brilliantly creative work method. Each morning when we got to the set, he, Bogie, and I and whoever else might be in the scene, and the script girl woudl sit in a circle in canvas chairs with our names on them and read the scene. Almost unfailingly Howard would bring in additional dialogue for the scenes of sex and innuendo between Bogie and me. After we’d gone over the words several times and changed whatever Bogie or Howard thought should be changed, Howard would ask an electrician for a work light – one light on the set – and we’d go through the scene on the set to see how it felt. Howard said, “Move around – see where it feels most comfortable.” Only after all that had been worked out did he call Sid Hickox and talk about camera set-ups. It is the perfect way for movie actors to work, but of course it takes time.

After about two weeks of shooting I wrote to my mother – she’d read one or two things in newspapers about my not having the first lead opposite Bogart –

Please, darling, don’t worry about what is written in the newspapers concerning first and second leads. You make me so goddamn mad – what the hell difference does it make? As long as when the public sees the picture they know that I’m the one who is playing opposite Bogart. Everything is working out beautifully for me. Howard told Charlie the rushes were sensational. He’s really very thrilled with them. I’m still not used to my face, however. Bogie has been a dream man. We have the most wonderful times together. I’m insane about him. We kid around – he’s always gagging – trying to break me up and is very, very fond of me. So if I were you, I’d thank my lucky stars, as I am doing and not worry about those unimportant things. The only thing that’s important is that I am good in the picture and the public likes me.

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The public didn’t just like you, Lauren Bacall. They love you.

Rest in peace.

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11 Responses to R.I.P. Lauren Bacall

  1. Desirae says:

    I’m officially done with this week. I don’t even know what to say.

  2. sheila says:

    I know. And like my friend Kim just said, “And it’s only Tuesday.”

  3. Jennchez says:

    Two giants in two days. Unbelievable.

  4. Helena says:

    So cool, so hot. What a lady.

  5. sheila says:

    I know! I loved her as a cranky old lady too. She was Lauren Bacall and she was 900 years old. She was allowed to be cranky! Her whole, “Nicole Kidman a legend? Puh-leeze” thing. So funny. And they were friends!

  6. Sylvia says:

    Loved the clip. “…It’s better when you help.”!

  7. Maureen says:

    I was so sad to see this last night. I adore Lauren Bacall, and I loved knowing she was out there. Smart, sexy, beautiful, funny-every one of these things and more. I love her comedic timing in How To Marry a Millionaire-when she is describing her first husband to the other girls on the balcony? So funny.

  8. sheila says:

    I loved knowing she was out there too. My friend Mitchell and I were just talking about her amazing scene in The Mirror Has Two Faces – in the kitchen with Barbra, and she’s not wearing makeup, and she’s telling her daughter the way things are – and it’s just straight up good acting. The movie has a ton of problems but that scene isn’t one of them!!

    And yes – How to Marry a Millionaire!!

  9. Rude1 says:

    She was an amazing woman and I too miss her already even though I can’t tell you the last time I saw her. Thanks Sheila for the wonderful words.

    • sheila says:

      Rude! How the hell are you? Your screen name is a blast from the past! Hope you are well!

      You are most welcome – the tributes to Bacall that have been coming out have just been amazing. She can’t be replaced!

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