When Robin Williams died Aug. 11, fans and commentators talked about his best performances, from Mork to Patch Adams. But when Lauren Bacall died the following day, people remembered her for one indelible role: Lauren Bacall.
She was a good actress, but she never disappeared into a character. You couldn’t imagine her playing a mousy suburbanite or a low-IQ bumpkin. And, offscreen, you couldn’t imagine her slipping unnoticed into a party or restaurant. When Variety reviewed her 1944 film debut in “To Have and Have Not,” the critic described her as “a young lady of presence.” And that presence served her well during a 70-year career. Audiences always knew who they were watching, and knew that this was a person who deserved attention.
Some of her best work was in supporting roles, such as the brash American socialite in Sidney Lumet’s 1974 “Murder on the Orient Express,” who could put people in their place just by narrowing her eyes. And her films with Humphrey Bogart offer a lesson in onscreen chemistry. Their age difference raised some eyebrows at the time — she was 20, he was 45. But after all these decades, they both seem timeless. It’s not an older-man/younger-woman relationship; it’s simply Bogie and Bacall.
Her career covered film, TV and stage — and commercials. When TV viewers saw a can of Fancy Feast catfood being opened, they heard a purring, gravelly voice and needed no reminders of who that voice belonged to.
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She had such a cool, take-charge persona that it’s endearing to hear rare tales of her vulnerability. When the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences gave her a Governors Award in 2009, she looked terrific and gave a funny and touching acceptance speech as she clutched her Oscar. But two years later, she told Vanity Fair, “What should have been one of the best days in my life is one of the worst.”
The actress explained that her three children were in the audience, and she was mortified to realize afterwards she had barely talked about two of them and never mentioned second husband Jason Robards or their son, actor Sam Robards: “I only talked about Bogie.”
Presumably her kids have recovered, but it’s interesting to imagine Bacall being flustered. She always seemed the epitome of cool, and showbiz veterans tell tales of her taking charge with a don’t-ask-questions attitude. That attitude was a key part of her persona, as was her sense of style. In the 1978 musical “Evita,” her name is used as a verb as the ambitious Eva Peron orders an image makeover, telling her assistants to “Lauren Bacall me.”
That persona was her greatest invention, and will always remain her greatest role.