“I’ve always felt that work – learning from people who know more than I know – is what keeps you going.” — Lauren Bacall


It’s her birthday today.

This was the magazine cover that started it all.

Howard Hawks was looking for a protege, a girl he could mold into his perfect idealized woman – the ideal foil for the men in those fabulous macho movies he made. He wasn’t interested in traditional gender roles. He was bored at the thought of a “traditional” woman, however sexy or pretty or appealing she might be. His interest was so specific it could almost be called a kink: He wanted a full-on woman with a capital W, but a woman who wasn’t silly or romantic or easily flustered: he wanted women who could keep up with the boys, who kept her cool, who held her own counsel – but was never “mannish”. A Howard Hawks woman was tough but not hard. If you watch his films in chronological order, you can watch him attempt to create what he saw in his head …. but he never quite got it right until … Lauren Bacall arrived. She was young and almost totally inexperienced; therefore, she was a blank slate, and completely brilliantly mold-able.

Howard Hawks’ wife, “Slim” Hawks – who, for real, was the living embodiment of what Hawks desired and wanted to create onscreen – saw 19-year-old Betty Perske on the cover of Harper’s Bazaar. It stopped her dead in her tracks and she immediately showed it to her husband. i.e. Look at this girl. Look at how she stares at the camera. Is this kind of the girl you’ve been looking for? Hawks saw what his wife saw. He had the teenage Betty 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 hold her head down to keep her chin from trembling – this would become her signature look. He made her keep her voice low and steady (this took a lot of control on her part: nerves make your voice go high.) He made her read the lines a certain way.


At the same time, Hawks 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 to play a thief, a love interest, a girl who gave as good as she got. Hawks’ dream-girl was “insolent”, the word he kept whispering in Bacall’s ear, a girl who could be AS “insolent” as Bogart was. Howard Hawks didn’t like silly women. He REALLY didn’t like prudes and prisses. Bacall made it through all of the tests, and Hawks cast her in To Have and Have Not. She was re-christened: “Lauren Bacall.”

Bacall wrote in her wonderful autobiography By Myself:

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.

Truer words …


Her debut in To Have and Have Not is one of the best film debuts in film history. It made her an instant star. Her first entrance is unforgettable. “Anybody got a match?” She, a virgin at the time, had almost no experience with men, and yet here she was playing a role where she oozed knowing confident sensuality.

This is very important to keep in mind: Bacall was not drawing on her own experiences. She followed Hawks’ instructinos, learning how to act on the job, and gave an incredible performance. Not everything has to come from a place of “lived experience”. It was an unforgettable first impression.

Bacall was able to channel her nerves, her fear, into a cool coiled character, sexually knowing, unflappable, with a sizzling hot interior. This is how strong she was: it also showed her total trust in Howard Hawks: but if you’re going to obey a Maestro, like she did, then you have to REALLY do it, you have to commit to it 100% – and that’s what she did. She didn’t fight his influence, she didn’t resent him telling her what to do, she wasn’t like “stop telling me what to do, Svengali.” He WAS a Svengali, and she participated willingly, fully. He knew what he had. She had no idea what she had. But he saw it. Slim Hawks saw it. They knew, just from looking at that magazine cover: she was a star.

And she remained so, for 70 more years.

One more thing: about that Harper’s Bazaar cover: If you look at Bacall’s deadpan straight-on expression, you see the future of modeling. The smileless future of modeling, where models stalk down the catwalk, with flat uningratiating faces. The future of modeling was the opposite of “come hither”. Bacall was an emissary from the future.

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