Adam Bernstein (c) 2014, The Washington Post.
Lauren Bacall, a bewitching actress whose husky voice and smoldering onscreen chemistry with her husband Humphrey Bogart made her a defining movie star of the 1940s and who decades later won Tony Awards in the Broadway musicals “Applause” and “Woman of the Year,” has died at 89.
Robbert de Klerk, co-managing partner of the Humphrey Bogart Estate, confirmed the death in an email.
Bacall was one of the last surviving major stars of the studio system, which flourished from the silent movie era to the dawn of the television age. She was a willowy, ash-blond fashion model when veteran film director Howard Hawks plucked her from the pages of Harper’s Bazaar in 1943 and molded her seductive screen persona.
Hawks gave Bacall, then 19, an electrifying film debut: as a sexy and insolent woman of mystery in “To Have and Have Not” (1944), based on an Ernest Hemingway story and set in the Caribbean during World War II. The movie shaped her public identity: a woman as sexually confident as she was formidable, or in Bogart’s words, “steel with curves.”
In the film’s best-remembered scene, Bacall sidles up to Bogart, who plays a hard-boiled charter boat captain named Steve. She kisses him, then says, “It’s even better when you help.”
As she prepares to leave his hotel room, she tells him, “You know you don’t have to act with me, Steve. You don’t have to say anything, and you don’t have to do anything. Oh, maybe just whistle. You know how to whistle, don’t you, Steve? You just put your lips together and blow.”
Bogart, more than twice her age and looking it, wore an expression of someone who could not believe his luck. Here was someone whose cocksure impertinence matched his – and she could sing, to boot, rendering “How Little We Know” to Hoagy Carmichael’s piano. Bogart divorced his third wife and married Bacall after filming.
“The notion that Bogart was falling for her is intoxicating,” said film historian David Thomson. “We used to go to the movies to fall in love with these strange people, and the fact that they might fall in love with each other is magic plus. This is the best instance of that happening in front of the camera.”
The sexual undercurrent was repeated in “The Big Sleep” (1946), with Bogart as Raymond Chandler’s fictional private detective Philip Marlowe and Bacall as a resourceful divorcee. She went on to act opposite some of the top leading men of her day – Kirk Douglas (“Young Man with a Horn”), Gary Cooper (“Bright Leaf”), John Wayne (“Blood Alley”) and Gregory Peck (“Designing Woman”) – but the films were inconsistent in quality.
If Bacall never again matched the sultry intensity of her early promise, she became a disciplined Broadway performer and bedazzled a series of powerful men in arts and politics.
After Bogart died in 1957, she was engaged to Frank Sinatra and had a turbulent marriage to actor Jason Robards Jr. She was a longtime resident of the Dakota apartments in New York, but her social life extended far beyond the city. She was a presence in the Hollywood film community and Washington stages and salons.
Attracted to liberal politics, Bacall grew close to a series of Democratic leaders, including President Harry Truman (who once serenaded her on piano), Robert F. Kennedy and Adlai Stevenson II. In 1947, she flew with Bogart to Washington as part of a group of actors and directors protesting the House Un-American Activities Committee and its investigation into alleged communist subversion in Hollywood.
Onscreen, Bacall matured into character parts that culminated in her Oscar nomination in a supporting role as Barbra Streisand’s hopelessly narcissistic mother in “The Mirror Has Two Faces” (1996). She received an honorary Academy Award in 1999 that celebrated “her central place in the Golden Age of motion pictures.”
Bacall was born Betty Joan Perske on Sept. 16, 1924, into a middle-class Jewish family in New York City. She was a child when her father abandoned the family. She grew up with her mother, who took the surname Bacal; Betty later added the extra “L” and paired it with the screen name Lauren at director Hawks’ behest.
She had modest training as an actress, but her stunning looks led to a modeling career and an appearance on the cover of Harper’s Bazaar in March 1943.
Captivated by Bacall’s photogenic face, Hawks put her under a seven-year contract, trained her in techniques of movie acting and waited for the right material to introduce her to audiences. To promote “To Have and Have Not,” she was publicized as “the Look” to note her thrilling way with a come-hither stare.
In her 1978 National Book Award-winning memoir, “By Myself,” she wrote that “the Look” was a reaction to the fear of acting for the camera. “By the end of the third or fourth take,” she wrote, “I realized that one way to hold my trembling head still was to keep it down, chin low, almost to my chest, and eyes up to Bogart. It worked, and it turned out to be the beginning of ‘the Look.’ “
Bacall said she had little experience with men when she first met Bogart on the set of “To Have and Have Not.” She did not find him particularly attractive at first and was a bit scared. He was married at the time to his third wife, actress Mayo Methot, whose reputation for being a violent drinker gave her the nickname Sluggy. They were known as the battling Bogarts.
“I don’t know how it happened – it was almost imperceptible,” Bacall wrote. “It was about three weeks into the picture – the end of the day – I had one more shot, was sitting at the dressing table in the portable dressing room combing my hair. Bogie came in to bid me good night. He was standing behind me – we were joking as usual – when suddenly he leaned over, put his hand under my chin, and kissed me. It was impulsive – he was a bit shy, no lunging wolf tactics.”
They married in 1945, and later she said she discovered he was a complicated companion. She called him a “a man of such integrity, such honor and wit,” but a heavy drinker who surrounded himself with other heavy drinkers, such as director John Huston. It was a “traumatic” experience for her, she later wrote, and she was also adjusting fitfully to her immediate stardom.
As a nice Jewish girl, she said, she had no business being cast as an Englishwoman in “Confidential Agent” (1945) opposite Charles Boyer. “And as quickly as I had been placed on a pedestal, I fell off,” she later told The New York Times. “My career was all but over. It took me years to kind of claw my way back again.”
She preferred working in comedy, usually delivering wry lines with a convincingly haughty tone. She won acclaim opposite Marilyn Monroe and Betty Grable as one of three unabashedly gold-digging models in the musical “How to Marry a Millionaire” (1953).
“The most intelligent and predatory of the trio, she takes complete control of every scene with her acid delivery of viciously witty lines,” critic Alton Cook wrote in the New York World-Telegram and Sun.
Bacall’s career slumped markedly in the 1950s. She said she was more content to be Mrs. Humphrey Bogart instead of a movie star. She accompanied him on his film assignments, raised their two children, Stephen and Leslie, and helped host informal parties five nights a week at their home in Los Angeles.
When Bogart received a diagnosis of cancer of the esophagus in 1956, Bacall curtailed the couple’s social activities and spent nearly all of her time caring for him. In her grief after he died the next year, Bacall said she fell into a depression.
She grew deeply attached to Sinatra, a close family friend. But when word of their engagement leaked to the media, the singer stopped taking her calls.
She said she felt humiliated by Sinatra, mistreated by the gossip pages and dismayed by what she called the superficiality of Hollywood life. Saying she had tired of being seen as “Bogart’s widow,” she settled her family in New York, hoping to construct a new identity as a theater actress.
In 1961, she wed Robards, a distinguished stage actor. He was a brilliant and passionate person, Bacall later said, but grew violent when drinking. The marriage produced a son, actor Sam Robards, before ending in divorce.
A complete list of survivors could not be immediately confirmed.
On Broadway, Bacall starred in George Axelrod’s comedy “Goodbye, Charlie” (1959), playing a lothario who returns from the grave as a woman. And in Abe Burrows’ long-running “Cactus Flower” (1965), she was the prim assistant to a womanizing dentist.
She won her two Tonys in roles made indelible onscreen by other powerful actresses. She played an aging actress threatened by an ambitious upstart in “Applause” (1970), a stage version of the Bette Davis film “All About Eve.” And she filled the Katharine Hepburn part of a high-powered journalist in “Woman of the Year” (1981).
Both plays did a great deal to transform Bacall into a respected actress. After seeing “Applause,” theater critic Walter Kerr wrote that she “ceases being a former movie star and becomes a star of the stage.”
Bacall said she struggled over the years to find engaging film roles. She played a brassy widow in “Murder on the Orient Express” (1974), based on the Agatha Christie mystery, and an actress stalked by an obsessed admirer in “The Fan” (1981). She took much smaller roles to work with directors she admired, including Lars von Trier (“Dogville,” 2003) and Paul Schrader (“The Walker,” 2007).
After losing the Oscar in 1996 to Juliette Binoche (“The English Patient”), Bacall told the Times of London that “the phone went completely dead, which shows you what a fickle business it is. It’s one of the reasons why I continue to work, because I know how it is not to work.
“I’ve had wilderness years, times in Los Angeles when you’d attend parties and see people’s eye line disappearing somewhere over your shoulder, which was one of the reasons I left that town. It was also more difficult for me in Hollywood to be myself rather than Bogie’s wife. They never let you forget.”