"The best of the picture has no plot at all, but is a leisurely series of mating duels between Humphrey Bogart at his most proficient and the very entertaining, nervy, adolescent new blonde, Lauren Bacall. Whether or not you like the film will depend I believe almost entirely on whether you like Miss Bacall. I am no judge. I can hardly look at her, much less listen to her - she has a voice like a chorus by Kid Ory - without getting caught in a dilemma between a low whistle and a bellylaugh. It has been years since I have seen such amusing pseudo-toughness on the screen. About all that Howard Hawks and his writers (William Faulkner and Jules Furthman) and Bogart try to do is to set this arrogant neophyte off to the best possible advantage, to cover up her weaknesses - or turn them into assets - and to toss campstools under her whenever she wobbles. This in itself is a pleasure to watch; so is the way she rewards them…" - James Agee, THE NATION, November 4, 1944
Lauren Bacall was nineteen years old when she brought all of humanity to its knees in Howard Hawks's TO HAVE AND HAVE NOT. Bacall was a natural, bust-your-nose beauty before she screen-tested for Hawks in 1944, but pretty on a magazine page meant nothing when it came to holding one's own on the big screen with a tough, emotionally cauterized bastard like Humphrey Bogart. Most women couldn't faze Bogie, much less get the better of him. Bacall didn't exactly steamroll him, but she bantered and sauntered and smoked like she belonged. She was Bogie's equal. That was a revelation in itself.
Lauren Bacall died today at the age of eight-nine, and when we reckon with her greatness we generally stick to a handful of movies: TO HAVE AND HAVE NOT, THE BIG SLEEP, KEY LARGO, DARK PASSAGE, WRITTEN ON THE WIND and DESIGNING WOMAN. Bacall was a knockout, a formidable presence that, properly utilized (i.e given material worthy of her talent), left us reeling like a tomato can on the business end of a Sonny Liston haymaker. She had the crisp comedic timing to hang with the likes of Barbara Stanwyck, Rosalind Russell or Katharine Hepburn, but she was too often the femme fatale or, worse yet, the love interest - someone to beware or be won.
Bacall probably talked her way out of a much more successful career: she was politically active (battling that Wisconsin thug Joseph McCarthy), and choosy with work when she was expected to be grateful for whatever uninspired roles Warners tossed her way. Bacall brought heat to YOUNG MAN WITH A HORN and kept her head above water in Vincente Minnelli's hilariously dated THE COBWEB, but she deserved better and, for several reasons (mostly because she wasn't a fan of studio bullshit), rarely got it. Minnelli's DESIGNING WOMAN was a critical and commercial hit in 1957, but her next two films - NORTH WEST FRONTIER and THE GIFT OF LOVE - were beneath her. By 1960, the movie star window had slammed shut on her.
Bacall's late-career triumphs came on Broadway, where she won Tony Awards for APPLAUSE (a musical version of ALL ABOUT EVE) and Kander & Ebb's WOMAN OF THE YEAR (based on George Stevens's classic 1942 rom-com). She worked in film and television when she felt like it, and won small victories in Lars Von Trier's DOGVILLE and Jonathan Glazer's BIRTH. Interestingly, she struck up an easy onscreen rapport with James Garner, appearing on THE ROCKFORD FILES, while costarring with him in THE FAN, HEALTH and MY FELLOW AMERICANS. Someone could've written a splendid two-hander for this duo, but what studio was clamoring for a film starring two people born before the start of the Great Depression?
Bacall is best remembered today as Humphrey Bogart's wife and onscreen foil, thanks in large part to soft-rock twaddle like Bertie Higgins's Top 40 hit "Key Largo" (which inexplicably quotes CASABLANCA while getting the plot of KEY LARGO dead wrong). Because there was no glorious swan song over her last decade, most people are left to fill in the blanks via received nostalgia. They fondly remember Bacall in CASABLANCA, even though she was not in it. They make jokes about her being the last living glamor gal name-dropped in the lyrics of Madonna's "Vogue". They express genuine shock at the notion that she was still alive.
Yet who was ever more alive than Lauren Bacall? Who tamed Bogie? Who walked in front of a movie camera at the age of nineteen and ruled the whole goddamn world?
Fine. That sap Bertie Higgins got one thing right. She really did have it all.