When Betty Jane Perske from the Bronx steps onstage to receive her Kennedy Center Honor for a lifetime of commendable work in the arts, no one will be surprised, except perhaps Lauren Bacall herself. “Isn’t she an institution?” asks director Robert Altman rhetorically. Altman, a longtime friend, worked with Bacall on his “H.E.A.L.T.H.” and “Pret-a-Porter.”
Still, while she’s never been taken for anybody’s fool, even she may be surprised at being an “institution,” much less at the longevity and the breadth of her career — films, Broadway, even a memoir or two. Bacall was being referred to as a legend long before Blackglamma decided to dub her so by letting her wear one of their minks. And in the words of one of her most recent directors, Barbra Streisand, “there is no question that Lauren Bacall has earned her legend. Her extraordinary strength, elegance and sardonic humor can enrich a role. But at the same time she is not afraid to surrender to the frailty or pain of the character she is playing.”
What Streisand is talking about sounds like what Howard Hawks experienced the first time he laid eyes on the then-19-year-old, staring back at him from the cover of a 1943 edition of Look magazine. Hawks was a connoisseur of stylish, strong women — survivors. And he wasn’t far off this time, either. Suspecting her proclivity for longevity, Hawks immediately put her under contract — although conjugally she was to sign a -long-term contract with her first co-star Humphrey Bogart, the veteran actor whom she taught how to whistle, among other things.
Along with her sultry visage (she was, after all, nicknamed “The Look”) and the svelte leonine gait, there was the voice — low and breathy and unmistakably sexy. With little acting experience, except what she’d picked up at the American Academy of Dramatic Arts, and operating with what she would later admit was a truly bad case of the jitters, she nonetheless engulfed the role of Slim (named and modeled after Hawks’ then wife, ‘Slim’ Keith Hawks) in her screen debut in “To Have and Have Not.”
In a way, today’s powerful screen heroines — from Sigourney Weaver to Michelle Pfeiffer to Sharon Stone – owe allegiance to Bacall, who proved that femininity and strength were not mutually exclusive traits. Streisand certainly benefited from Bacall’s example, as did another don’t-mess-with-me actress, Anjelica Huston, a longtime friend of Bacall’s (her dad John directed Bacall in “Key Largo” even before Anjelica was born).
Says Huston: “The reason Lauren is a legend is because her image in life, as it is onscreen, is indelible. You can always close your eyes and see her. She has one of the most extraordinary faces of all time. Also, there’s that voice that you never forget. As the British say, she lives on the pulse.”
Bacall’s formidability, however, is underlined by the vulnerability that Streisand so eloquently described and that informs the veteran actress’s performance in “The Mirror Has Two Faces,” for which she received her only Oscar nomination to date. Her doesn’t-suffer-fools-gladly exterior is also invested with a warmth that director Peter Segal experienced when he recently worked with her in “My Fellow Americans.”
“I don’t know whether people are intimidated by working with screen legends or not,” says Segal. “But I found that she was fun, feisty and very playful with a great sense of humor. And she was so approachable, so gracious to anyone who came up to her for an autograph. She created a wonderful atmosphere on the set. Everyone’s posture perked up and their attention was at their sharpest when she was around. They knew they were playing with a Hall of Famer.”
What is perhaps Bacall’s greatest feat is that her work retains a contemporaneity. For although she married and became a devoted wife to Bogart and later Jason Robards Jr. – as well as a loving mother – onscreen she never lost her edge. Her characters were always outwardly ambitious and pragmatic, as she demonstrated in such films as “How to Marry a Millionaire” in 1953 or “Designing Women” in 1957.
“She’s a contemporary woman,” observes Altman. “She never got locked in any time warp. Think about how many social and attitudinal changes that have occurred and yet Bacall has always remained unique.”
In fact, her retreat from the silver screen coincided with the demise of the studio system that built strong female stars. During the transition phase that followed – before actresses such as Jane Fonda reclaimed the screen for strong female characters – there seemed to be no place for Bacall’s moxie.
So she moved her talents to the stage, where she won the first of two Tonys in the musical version of “All About Eve,” titled “Applause.” In reprising the Margo Channing role created by Bette Davis, she paid homage to someone who was undoubtedly one of Bacall’s own role models. So was Katharine Hepburn, into whose shoes Bacall also stepped in the stage musical version of “Woman of the Year,” claiming her second Tony.
Broadway seemed to know what to do with Bacall, how to fashion roles that played to her strengths. In movies, however, there was little for her to do (except for the occasional film like 1976’s “The Shootist” with John Wayne) except play Lauren Bacall. But in films like “Harper” (1966), “Murder on the Orient Express” (1974), “The Fan” (1981) and “Misery” (1990), she did just that. And truly, who could do it better?
Streisand, however, tapped into Bacall’s reservoirs as an actress, extracting both the Bacall we’ve come to know, and going deeper to find a vulnerability and touching self-reflection. She only had a small role in “My Fellow Americans,” and when director Segal asked why she chose to work so little these days, she shot back that she would love to work more, but the scripts were not exactly piled at her door.
“It was such a double-edged sword using her in a smaller role,” muses Segal. “On the one hand, she was good friends with both (Jack) Lemmon and (James) Garner. So she did the role for the fun of it. On the other, critics got down on us for not utilizing her enough. I’d love to find another role to suit her talent.”
But perhaps that’s all beside the point. The reason Bacall has made such a lasting impression – onscreen and on stage – is simply because she is Lauren Bacall, a persona itself that is the creation of the Bronx’s Bette Jane Perske, who at age 19, was already hard at work on her lifelong creation. Unlike the heroines that preceded her, Bacall was never a victim in her movies. Neither was she treacherous or a femme fatale luring men to destruction.
Instead, she embodied strength and sexuality with healthy dollops of humor, making her a link between the past and the present, the symbolic can-have-it-all modern woman, the “daughter” of Barbara Stanwyk and Bette Davis and the “mother” of Anjelica Huston and Barbra Streisand.
And perhaps that is her true lasting legacy.