As you undoubtedly know by now, Lauren Bacall died Aug. 12 in New York City at age 89.
With her went at least a sliver of the collective magic we treasure today as Hollywood’s classic movie era. She was the young, good-looking broad who’d been around the block at least once. It helped that she was endowed a throaty voice with fashion-model looks along with an abundance of feminine wiles (and intelligence) to interest classic Hollywood’s biggest star, Humphrey Bogart.
The former Betty Perske from Brooklyn was a complicated woman, who grew and developed over decades across several platforms, conquering the Broadway stage by winning Tony Awards (for two musicals, 1970’s Applause and 1981’s Woman of the Year; both of which based on movies, 1950’s All About Eve and 1942’s Woman of the Year.).
She also engaged in politics, describing herself as “a lefty” who got along famously with John Wayne, who was anything but.
Her movie career meanwhile didn’t suffer and became more adventurous (she is credited with 72 movie and tv projects in all). She kept pace with the times, taking on roles in late life that challenged her, including parts in 2000’s Mandalay and 2003’s Dogville, both from enfant terrible Danish director Lars von Trier.
But it was her screen debut as “Slim” Browning that sticks stubbornly in collective memory.
It was 1944, and the movie is director Howard Hawks’ justifiably classic To Have and Have Not. As our Books-To-Movies maven Larry Michie has pointed out, the movie used only a fragment of the Ernest Hemingway novel on which it is based. Here’s the plot as seen onscreen:
Humphrey Bogart plays a charter boat captain named Steve who takes rich folks out fishing. He’s based in Martinique, and his all-purpose handyman and helper is none other than Walter Brennan, who is most assuredly an alcoholic, although played a bit more humorously than would be considered politically correct today.
Steve turns down the earnest good guy who wants to pay him to pick up and transport some Free French leaders (this being World War II, and the Germans being the bad guys). Steve refuses, but when his latest fishing customer stiffs him, he decides to take the job so he can pay his debts.
While Steve is mulling over his options in his favorite bar, he notes a pick-pocketing young woman, and sparks begin to fly. The young beauty, just out of her teens, is none other than Lauren Bacall, and man, does she make the screen come alive.
Her famous line inviting Steve to whistle if he needs anything – ‘You know how to whistle, don’t you, Steve? Just put your lips together and blow’ – must have kept a whole generation of men and boys awake at night. Women and girls, too, for that matter.
Bogie and Bacall , despite their age difference (he was 45, she just 20), began a year after the movie came out a celebrated 12-year marriage that ended with his death of esophageal cancer.
Bacall then took up with Frank Sinatra for a time. They had known each other well from the many “Rat Pack” soirees conducted at Bogart’s home. The romance blossomed but was eventually called off by a miffed Sinatra after news of his marriage proposal to Bacall was leaked to the press. An eight year-marriage to actor Jason Robards Jr. ended in 1969.
By the time of her death, Bacall had written two well-received biographies, and had received numerous officials awards. She was considered show business royalty.
But forget most of that. The best tribute to her is to enjoy her movies: among our favorites, 1948’s Key Largo, 1953’s How To Marry A Millionaire, 1966’s Harper with Paul Newman and The Shootist with her right wing pal, John Wayne.