The Faces of Lauren Bacall
Waifish sophisticate and wisecracking broad, she went beyond the limits of glamour
In a 1979 appearance on The Dick Cavett Show, a middle-aged Lauren Bacall assures the studio audience that she spent many of her early days in Hollywood “feeling like quite a misfit, I must say.” She tilts back her blonde-coiffed head, lets out a cackle, and takes a swig of what looks like gin. Bacall’s three gestures are performed with enough nonchalance to suggest only a single movement. It’s a mesmerizing display. Her voice is still that near-growl, her speech still peppered with the affectations of the Transatlantic accent. And so when she carries on with the self-effacing remarks about her zany way in the world, I’m hard-pressed to believe any of it. She punctuates her confessions of clumsiness with that iconic smize and all of their meaning is hollowed out.
I am reminded, over the course of the interview, of another occasion in which Bacall is entrancingly deceptive. Like Bogart and earlier generations of moviegoers, I had trouble believing that Bacall was only nineteen and a “pure virgin” (her words) when she made her film debut in Howard Hawks’s 1944 picture, To Have and Have Not. In it Bacall plays Marie “Slim” Browning, a wayward American girl whose reasons for visiting Martinique — the film’s setting — are left murky, if not entirely undeveloped. The same could be said of the rest of the plot, which is an outright bastardization of Hemingway’s 1937 novel of the same name. Indeed, the fact that it was William Faulkner who co-wrote the screenplay for a filmic adaptation of a Hemingway novel is utterly absurd. This is what happens, we might say, when you enlist the Great Maximalist to take on the Great Minimalist.
Once Bacall enters the frame, though, you almost excuse To Have and To Have Not for being so loose in its plotting. She hisses and coos and wiggles and chain-smokes with an ironic and impenetrable grace. Bacall makes a sphinx out of Slim — catlike, unknowable — and a boy out of Humphrey Bogart. Mind you, Bogart was himself twenty-five years her senior; their “May-December” marriage lasted a notable twelve years. And so the moment Bacall reappears, this time to teach Bogie’s character Steve to whistle (“you just put your lips together and blow”), you lament the scene’s brevity. You twiddle your thumbs through the routine, noirish interludes until she reenters the frame. Somehow, with a few fluid gestures, Bacall smothers everything she touches, or fixes her gaze upon, with her sexual energy. The rest just fades away, retreats to platitude. The film is but a conduit for those sidelong shots of Bacall.
This is why I hesitate to suggest that Bacall, however magnetizing, achieves any noticeable portion of her success in this film solely through her manner of recitation. Sure, her breathy elocutions are the pleasant complement to Bogie’s staccato delivery of empty witticisms. But this kind of gendered, verbal dance was de rigueur, the result of a then-current male-female grammar. Bogart stuck to his brand of detached machismo; Bacall to her impish femininity. This was, after all, an era in Hollywood that didn’t require much modality of its actors. In an essay on Katharine Hepburn, Zadie Smith rightly muses that the actress’s true “triumph, like all the Golden Age actors, was to figure out that screen acting, in opposition to stage acting, hasn’t got a damn thing to do with range.” To Smith’s mind, it was the vogue — for Hepburn, and therefore her contemporaries, Bogie and Bacall — to perform one’s star persona, rather than to assume a film-specific character. No wonder Bacall rarely elevates her lines above the thin register of obligation in To Have and Have Not. She didn’t have to. Playing her bewitching image was enough.
You could say, to use Smith’s phrasing, that Bacall figured out how to triumph quite early. Or Warner Bros. did for her. Either way, method acting be damned. Bacall’s method? Keep those steady, mischievous eyes pointed right at the camera, just as she had always done in her pre-Hollywood days as a model in New York.
In some ways, I think Bacall’s previous career in fashion had a profound and lasting effect on her star image. Or at least more than most pre-fame careers had on many of her contemporaries. Usually these jobs make a nice story — Lana Turner was the high school student buying a Coke at the diner, Jane Russell the receptionist — but Bacall’s tenure as an exquisite prop would have her forever minted as high art. Where others’ had campy, Western-themed pinup shots in their pasts, Bacall had a Harper’s Bazaar cover. On it she wears an elegant black coat, its lapels turned up with all the erudition of the Parisian couturiers so often lost on American consumers. Still, she stands against the backdrop of a Red Cross blood donation center, a patriotic and topical choice in line with wartime values. The cover manages to strike both a noticeable contrast and necessary balance. Bacall took this rare combination along as a souvenir. It became the backbone of her brand of ‘cool’. And so “The Look” was born.
Because her look was her essence, Lauren Bacall seems, to me, to be the 1940s answer to Greta Garbo. Garbo was all image, her face a perfect piece of painted porcelain. Roland Barthes called it “an idea.” But unlike Garbo, who remained shrouded in the mystery of European Otherness until she died in 1990, Bacall eventually sought to reclaim the aspects of her identity and character that had been lost to the arty function of her persona. Namely, her humor and Jewish Americanness. Her birth name, for one, had shown far too much Jewishness for old Hollywood and was therefore changed. She was, however, born Betty Joan Perske in The Bronx, New York, in 1924, the only daughter to Eastern European immigrants. And she speaks, in that interview with Dick Cavett, to the casually anti-Semitic remarks thrown her way. Many were along the lines of “wow, you don’t look Jewish.” But as she writes in her 1978 memoir By Myself, Bacall felt “totally Jewish and always would.” You can imagine how vexing this might be — especially at nineteen — to have your features widely lauded for not reflecting an integral part of your being.
In the mid-1950s, Bacall landed two prominent roles in the romantic comedies, How to Marry a Millionaire (1953) and Designing Woman (1957). These films were an obvious departure from the noirs and melodramas she starred in throughout the 1940s, though both kept Bacall close to her fashion industry origins. In How to Marry a Millionaire she plays a model, and in Designing Woman, as you might imagine, a clothing designer. Taken together these roles seem to be the perfect synthesis of Bacall’s film personas. She is, as these characters, at once the waifish sophisticate and the wisecracking broad.
Although How to Marry a Millionaire will always be the more popular of the two (it’s got Monroe! and Grable too!), Bacall is vivid as ever in Designing Woman. In one scene, Bacall’s stuffy character Marilla and her sportswriter husband Mike (Gregory Peck) attend a boxing match. Between rowdy men sits Marilla, clad in a mink shawl and hat with a silly, violet flower. She is pushed about for several minutes, the flower on her hat bopping every which way, before she stands, screams, and is briskly pulled out of the arena by Mike. It’s a campy and unclever scene but one in which Bacall is so dynamic. Her lines are few. The scene is about her face. But this time, she’s not serving the camera “The Look” or something like it; her green eyes dart about and her mouth contorts. There is nothing steady or sultry about it, yet Bacall appears as imagistic as ever. Her greatest tool, suddenly, acquires its overdue range.
There is always the bleak possibility that Bacall took these comedic parts because she was, at the ripe old age of thirty-three, aging out of the vixen roles she had played just a few years prior. Hollywood can be so prematurely cruel to women when it comes to their displayed mortality. However much or little it was her personal choice, I like to think her slapstick-y bits were a way of attaining some sort of subversive agency. Like the page of a pop-up book, Bacall suddenly jumped out — 3D, intricate, amusing — against the relative flatness of her glamour.
Much later, in her actual seniority and not just in the Hollywood kind, Bacall remarked: “I think your whole life shows in your face and you should be proud of it.” While I imagine that Bacall, with her playful air of self-deprecation, may try convince us otherwise, such a remark — from a woman whose nickname was “The Look” — reveals her quiet confidence.