Today the Belfast Telegraph has run a story with the headline “Lauren Bacall Will Always Be in the Shadow of Humphrey Bogart.” Of course I’m linking it, for the record, but you needn’t bother to read it. It doesn’t come anywhere near explaining its own header.
The author, Deborah Coughlin, mentions the old chestnut about how Bogart lost his first two wives to their careers, and how Bacall thus felt as his wife, her first priority was to support him. Sure. But Bacall lived for 57 years after Bogart’s death, and the article is just as unconcerned about the second and third thirds of her life as all the other media you might think Coughlin is implicitly criticizing.
Let me try to do a little better.
First, Lauren Bacall knew people tied her to Bogart – she was right even beyond the grave. As the Times‘ recent obituary said,
“I think I’ve damn well earned the right to be judged on my own,” she said in a 1970 interview with The New York Times. “It’s time I was allowed a life of my own, to be judged and thought of as a person, as me.”
Years later, however, she seemed resigned to being forever tied to Bogart and expressed annoyance that her later marriage to another leading actor, Jason Robards Jr., was often overlooked.
“My obit is going to be full of Bogart, I’m sure,” she told Vanity Fair magazine in a profile of her in March 2011, adding: “I’ll never know if that’s true. If that’s the way, that’s the way it is.”
Bacall’s obituaries were as tied to Bogart as Gene Siskel’s were to Roger Ebert. (Art Garfunkel: better find that cancer cure soon.) But why? Let me take the next 1500 words or so to explain.
First, Humphrey Bogart wasn’t just any old star, like, say, Van Johnson. If Jimmy Cagney was America in the 1930s, as a popular history has it, then Bogart was America’s self-image in the 1940s: streetwise but also world-weary, romantic but deeply cynical, hangdog-bullying but chock full of character. In the traumatic wartime and postwar years, we were Bogart, a star-audience transference underlined by the fact that at no time did Hollywood attempt to make stars out of dozens (or even two) more Bogarts; by the 50s, we were either Holden or Brando or Lancaster or somebody a lot more conventionally handsome. That decade-defining duality of deferring duty, and then, eventually, doing it, was etched into America’s mind with Casablanca (1942), an outstanding film that almost every American adult watched during the war. We knew Rick and Ilsa would always have Paris. But did Rick have to be stuck with a French cop for the rest of his life?
Next time you need an example of being the right person in the right place at the right time, please consider 19-year-old Lauren Bacall when she was cast in To Have and Have Not (1944), her debut film. In that and the other three excellent films she made with Bogart – The Big Sleep (1946), Dark Passage (1947), and Key Largo (1948) – she cut a commanding figure, the young American woman who you ignored at your peril even when she spoke in a whisper. Not to take credit away from the inimitable Bacall, who did everything righter than right. Just that not everyone gets to spend the first half-decade of their film career associating their name with people like Ernest Hemingway, Howard Hawks, Raymond Chandler, William Faulkner, and John Huston at their peaks. It was a fantasy of a career before she was 25, the kind most women would have loved to have.
As the star who married Bogart in 1945, Lauren Bacall represented Humphrey Bogart’s happy ending, and their names were even alliterative, obviating any need for her to change hers; what a wonderful century, where married women could keep their names! Where people could earn universal admiration for simply performing (in living memory – prior to 1915 – to be famous, you had to be a politician, writer, scientist, or something more “serious” than an actor). Her fame and persona were invigorating, a validation of the new American dream that we had just sacrificed so much for. As a postwar star, Bacall was worth coming home to; she was a rock of fearlessness in a fearful new Atomic Age.
What I’m saying is that Bacall activated many fantasies, as an actress and famous person. On the one hand, there’s a timeless interest in men with pretty girls, like when Michael Bay told Entertainment Weekly in 2005, about casting Scarlett Johansson as the love interest to Ewan McGregor in The Island: “You gotta find chemistry. Someone that looks right, you know, age. Ewan looks like he’s 32, so you gotta find a 20-year-old for him.” Yes, Bogart was older, old enough to be Bacall’s father, and that’s part of the point; as I’ve written about, one of the reasons for Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs’ (1937) epoch-making, studio-founding success was Walt Disney’s implicit point that he, or Prince Charming, was rescuing the next generation of starlets from the tawdry vicissitudes of wicked once-beautiful stepmothers, awkward jewel-obsessed short men, and other animals of supposedly fairy-tale Hollywood. Thus, society pages featuring happy photos of Bogart and Bacall pleased both the Humbert Humberts and the men who wanted to rescue their daughters…throw in fans of Bogie, and you’ve got pretty much all men.
The name was perfect: She came to modeling as Betty Bacal, added the second “l” to help others pronounce it (she said), but Bacall could never have been what she was without that Lauren. Scholars of names (think Robert Langdon without the DaVinci Code problems) know that ending a woman’s name in a consonant connotes strength: Susan, Beth, Joan, sound stronger than Allie, Kristie, Jana. But keeping an “l” and/or an “r” around connotes luxuriant femininity: consider what your mouth does to make those sounds. So Lauren suited someone both hard and soft, for whom her angular face and pointed barbs could be matched against her wavy hair and flowing get-ups. Would Norma Jean Dougherty have risen to become Bacall’s co-star in How to Marry a Millionaire (1953) if she hadn’t been re-christened Marilyn Monroe? Seems unlikely.
As for their other Millionaire co-star, Betty Grable, she spent the war as the GIs’ favorite pin-up girl, but Howard Hawks – along with Billy Wilder, John Huston, and writers like James M. Cain and Dashiell Hammett – intuited that America was ready to grow up just a little, and so film noir and film-version “Lauren Bacall” were born around the same time. It was a match made in postwar-paranoia heaven, partly because Bacall was sly enough to be a “femme fatale” if that was called for, but she was never only that; her trademark sardonicism implied a vast and jauntily lived life outside the frame. If the key theme of noir was feeling trapped, then the unflappable Bacall suggested capture that would be more like rapture. The classical studio star is always contained, partly by studio management, yet manages grace under fire, a tiger’s roar from a cage, thrilling partly for the sense of danger displaced.
So Lauren Bacall was the young looker you might leave your wife for, the brilliant daughter you could save, and a queen of hardboiled films, but you might have said the same about Ingrid Bergman; what distinguished Bacall as a star was that she stood by her man, Bogart, even when others would have walked away, through his highly public challenging of Hollywood’s blacklist, to his rumored dalliances, to his untimely illness and death. The press can’t stop talking about Hillary Clinton, yet of all the reasons for her decades-long status as America’s most admired woman, one goes unspoken: despite (because of?) what she once said about Tammy Wynette, Hillary stood by her man when it counted. Men and women have different reasons for desiring such a public figure, but desiring it is something they do.
Bogart’s death, in 1957, meant the end of “Bogart and Bacall,” and Bacall stopped activating quite so many fantasies. It’s true that Hollywood has always had a problem finding star parts for women over, ahem, 32 (Bacall’s age when Bogart died), but Bette Davis, Katharine Hepburn, and Joan Crawford managed to find roles throughout the 1960s, until Hollywood slammed the door on most lead female roles in the late 1960s (as detailed in my book). No, it’s clear that Bacall was a victim, in her own way, of the deaths of Bogart and film noir and even black-and-white film; the rise of color film, Cinemascope, and television did no favors to her – okay, fine – sultry, glamorous persona. You couldn’t really imagine Bacall doing swords-and-sandals the way you could Elizabeth Taylor (not that Cleopatra was full of good ideas, but casting Taylor wasn’t crazy). For her part, or I should say, for her parts, Bacall was smart enough to head to Broadway and pick up a couple of Tony Awards. Without Bogie, she could never be what she was, and Hollywood and a lot of America didn’t want her any other way. Perhaps the real reason Bacall never had a post-classical career was that we were too invested in wanting to remember how much we loved the classical period. She held the torch for Bogie, so we made her hold the torch of high studio cinema for the rest of us every time the world got too crazy.
We were lucky to have Lauren Bacall, luckier still that she stuck around for so long, and not only to show us what a beautiful aging woman looks like. More to remind us of how we changed even more than she did. Since her heyday, the star system has been on a steady roll toward deglamorization, not just for the makeup department, but also in terms of control; now we have stars who brag of their power over projects even as they tweet their latest everyday foibles and shenanigans. Bacall reminded us of when stars were both more contained and more above it all. There’s a word for her combination of mystique and groundedness, and we owe it to her to rework it in (with) her name: from now on, call it Bacallure.