Today is the 85th birthday of one of the last great movie stars of the golden era: Lauren Bacall. She may have been among the sexiest screen goddesses, but she was born plain-old Betty Joan Perske in New York City in 1924. Her mother was Romanian-German and her father was Polish. Bacall’s parents divorced when she was six years old, and she was brought up by her mother and grandmother.
When she left school she won a place at the prestigious American Academy of Dramatic Arts in her home city. However, lack of funds and the refusal of the academy to grant scholarships to women meant that she had to abandon her studies at the end of the first year. Desperate to get an acting job, Bacall frequented theatrical hang-outs and earned her crust by working as a model in the bustling “garment center”, where girls were hired to model gowns for buyers. Her first modelling job ended when her boss found out that she was Jewish.
After months of pavement-pounding, Bacall made a breakthrough of sorts into Broadway when she landed the job of usher in a chain of theatres. She made her Broadway debut – as Lauren Bacall (Bacal had been half of her mother’s maiden name) in March 1942, in a tiny role in an ill-fated production entitled Johnny 2×4. Later that year, Bacall modelled for a fashion shoot for Harper’s Bazaar. When the magazine came out, it changed her life.
Slim Hawks, Mrs Howard Hawks, saw the cover photograph of this sexy and sullen-looking newcomer and brought it to the attention of her director-producer husband who immediately arranged for Bacall to have a screen test. The result was a role in Hawks’s To Have and Have Not (1944), an adaptation of Ernest Hemingway’s book, with the action transferred from Cuba to French Martinique and cracking dialogue by William Faulkner and Jules Furthman.
As Marie, nicknamed Slim, the girl who suggestively teaches Humphrey Bogart’s bemused but beguiled character how to whistle, Bacall was an instant hit – a new kind of tough femme fatale, with a deep, manly voice and a masculine way of pursuing her romantic quarry. She smouldered as, with a knowing smile, she traded suggestive dialogue with Bogart. And her habit, which he taught her as a way to stop her nerves from showing, of keeping her chin down when she was on camera was a crucial part of what became known as “The Look”.
Their chemistry was immediate – and very obvious. Bacall and Bogart, who was 45 to her 19, fell in love and began an affair – he was married at the time – which led to their marriage in 1945.
Bogie and “Baby” went on to work together in several of what were the best films of both their careers – notably Hawks’s archetypal film noir The Big Sleep (1946), in which she exuded even more cynicism than in her first film. Other Bogie-Bacall collaborations include the thriller Dark Passage (1947) and the atmospheric melodrama Key Largo (1948).
Bacall had her first child, Stephen (“Steve” was the nickname Slim gives to Harry Morgan, Bogie’s To Have or Have Not character), in January 1949, but was back at work soon afterwards – in the 1950 melodrama Young Man With a Horn, opposite her teenage beau Kirk Douglas. Other notable 1950s films included the colourful comedy How To Marry a Millionaire (1953), in which, as the brains behind an apparently fool-proof gold-digging operation, she has to babysit dumb blondes Marilyn Monroe and Betty Grable, and the all-star soap opera Written on the Wind (1956). However, Bacall – who gave birth to a daughter, Leslie, in 1952 – spent much of that decade caring for Bogart, who had lung cancer.
Shortly after Bogart’s death in 1957, Bacall moved to New York and the stage, and was absent from the screen for five years. In 1961, she married Jason Robards Jr and during their eight-year marriage, she had another son. She then divided her time between Broadway and Hollywod, winning a Tony award for her performance in the show Applause in 1970 and, in 1996, an Oscar nomination for her role as Barbra Streisand’s mother in The Mirror Has Two Faces.
Bacall, who has emerged as a feisty, no-nonsense grande dame of the showbiz world, continues to work – she has three films in post-production at the time of writing – and to terrify interviewers with her frankly expressed opinions on everything from ageing (“Your whole life shows in your face – and you should be proud of that”) to being a “legend”. Her two volumes of autobiography are among the best published by anyone in the movie business. A striking woman, even in her mid-80s, she stands for an era in which stars had personalities and principles – they certainly don’t make them like her anymore. Her forthcoming Honorary Academy Award is well-deserved and long-overdue..