Lauren Bacall: The Designing Woman

By Stevens, Dana | Pittsburgh Post-Gazette (Pittsburgh, PA), August 14, 2014 | Go to article overview

Lauren Bacall: The Designing Woman


Stevens, Dana, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette (Pittsburgh, PA)


NEW YORK - She was the pure molten essence of a mid-20th-century movie star - if something that's molten can somehow also be cool. Her beauty was classical, sculptural, a little remote, and all her life she carried herself not only with a dancer's grace, but with a sly awareness of the power conferred on her by that sheer physical exquisiteness. But even at age 19 - playing opposite a 44-year-old Humphrey Bogart in Howard Hawks' "To Have and Have Not," in what's surely one of the most indelible screen debuts in Hollywood history - Lauren Bacall also clearly conveyed the sense of having the quickest mind in the room. When the people in the room include Mr. Bogart and Mr. Hawks, that's saying something.

In "To Have and Have Not," she is walking into Mr. Bogart's life and ours for the first time - a micro-scene, less than a minute long and with only two lines of dialogue (both hers), but look at what a tight game of erotic gamesmanship and mutual risk assessment these two are playing. "Anybody got a match?" she asks, and as he gets out the pack to toss to her, we get the pun: They have a match, a sizzling hot one that's about to set fire to Mr. Bogart's third marriage. Ms. Bacall's timing as she lights her cigarette and tosses the burnt-out match over her shoulder is pure comic bliss.

According to legend, Ms. Bacall was so nervous during filming that she invented the chin-down, eye-locking gaze that her publicist would later dub "the Look" in order to keep from visibly trembling on-camera. Yet she spoke that drop-dead noir dialogue, to quote film historian David Thomson, "as if she had been up all night writing the script." (In fact, it was William Faulkner who had been burning the midnight oil; he contributed to a late rewrite of the screenplay, an adaptation of a novel by his archrival Ernest Hemingway.)

Two years later in "The Big Sleep" - another Mr. Hawks production co-scripted by Mr. Faulkner, this time from a Raymond Chandler novel - Mr. Bogart and Ms. Bacall, by then married, had developed a slightly different, if just as smoldering, onscreen dynamic. As the detective Philip Marlowe and his possibly duplicitous client Vivian Rutledge, the two circle one another like hawks, interrogating the meaning of every word and gesture. In this scene, Vivian, delivering a doctored version of the truth to her just-hired private eye, inadvertently gives away her own "tell": When nervous, she toys with the hem of her skirt, allowing Marlowe to deduce that she's lying even as she reveals a strategic glimpse of gam.

The moment the mounting tension between the two resolves in a slightly naughty sight gag is another triumph of Ms. Bacall's undersung comic timing.

In between "To Have and Have Not" and "The Big Sleep," Ms. Bacall received terrible notices for her performance in the Graham Greene adaptation "Confidential Agent," which hurt her confidence and her career for years.

When she wasn't acting opposite Mr. Bogart, she could sometimes appear stiff and solemn, her natural reserve coming off as chilly remoteness (though when she started to perform onstage later in life, she found a new exuberance that would eventually win her two Tonys). …

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