Lauren Bacall was a woman of sharp angles: the arch of her famous brows, the turn of her squared shoulders, the exacting line of her cinched ’40s suits. Her clipped speech, her exacting language. But there was a softness, too: the rolling waves of hair, the feline eyes, the plump — if always set — mouth. Bacall’s voice was husky like a man’s, yet strangely soothing. While watching clips of her last night, I had an overwhelming desire to fall asleep to a loop of her voice. She might steal your wallet as soon as you drift off, but that’s just fulfilling her cinematic role as a femme fatale: There’s danger in those curves.
Bacall was one of the last living remnants of classic Hollywood — an age when the studios made the images larger than life from raw star material. Even though the bulk of her career was in color, the shots that look most like Bacall, that reflect the way we think of her, are all in black and white, signifiers of a different, classier era. In these photos, Bacall’s usually in some configuration with her first love and husband, Humphrey Bogart, whose own star morphed iconic long ago. But Bacall was much more than Bogie’s wife: He’d always had a sort of gruff charisma, but it was only under Bacall’s gaze that he became a legitimate sex object. No matter that they were separated by 25 years in age: They electrified each other.
Like so many classic Hollywood stars, Bacall came from a less-than-stellar background: She was the child of immigrants, was born in the Bronx, had a deadbeat father. She did some stage work in her teens, but didn’t really have the chops so much as the look, which is how she caught the eye of the fashion designer at Harper’s Bazaar who eventually put her on the cover of the magazine in a now-iconic (and very World War II) shot:
That’s where the legend of Bacall begins: with a sullen yet utterly beguiling look from the cover of a magazine. In 1943, Howard Hawks found himself frustrated with the actress he’d cast opposite Humphrey Bogart in his new film, a very loose adaptation of Ernest Hemingway’s To Have and Have Not. His wife told him to fire her if he didn’t like her and find someone new. She leafed through the magazines on the coffee table, found the one with Bacall on the cover, held it up to him, and a week later, she was in his office.
But Bacall was no normal star. Her contract was with Hawks himself, but Warner Bros., which was producing To Have and Have Not, wanted to give her a full makeover — bleach her hair, pluck her eyebrows into thin Dietrich lines, cap her teeth — but Bacall resisted: As she told Collier’s, “I felt that whatever it was Hawks saw in me I should keep.” Hawks did, however, have her read aloud for hours, then had her scream as loudly as she could, thus fashioning the trademark Bacall voice.
But that face! That face needed no work: As profile after profile explained, she possessed what the Saturday Evening Post called “cohesive physiognomy” — a fancy of way of saying that she looked good photographed from every angle. She had instinctive balance — Hawks “always found her looking correct when taken by surprise.” But when Bacall told Hawks that she might need some acting classes, his reply was absolute: “What you need to learn is non-acting.”
And that’s what you see in Bacall’s first and most defining performance in To Have and Have Not. Watching it today, it’s like a master class in partner acting: The plot is flimsy and, let’s be honest, extraneous, but who cares about getting off the island of Martinique or the Allied cause when all you want is to watch Bogart and Bacall take turns lighting each other’s cigarettes and volleying comebacks across a dimly lit room?
They’re a mismatched pair: Bacall’s Slim is nearly as tall as Bogart, and her build, despite her character’s name, is more commanding. Her face is young, but the second she enters the room, there is no doubt who owns it, and all the men therein. But Bogart’s character finds that power enthralling, and it’s impossible, as a viewer, not to feel the same. For years, I never quite understood what was happening in the “You just put your lips together and blow” scene, but it didn’t really matter: What Bacall was really showing was how to make an exit that ensures you’re never forgotten.
There’s some indication that Bacall was, per Hawks’ instruction, simply non-acting, which also explains how she and Bogart fell so deeply in love while filming. When Bogart first met Bacall, he told her, “I think we’re going to have a lot of fun making this picture together, kid.” And that fun is palpable on-screen: It’s the same feeling you get when watching Mr. and Mrs. Smith — this isn’t a simulacrum of love and chemistry and sexual tension, but the real, contagious thing, impossible to ignore.
Warner Bros. certainly saw it, which is why they decided to give the film, which was slated for a normal run-of-the-mill release, a massive publicity campaign. Bogart and Bacall denied anything was happening — Bogart was, after all, still married to his third wife, Mayo Methot — but it was plain to all who could see.
The film was a massive hit, Bacall was an instant star, and the gossip around their non-romance was out of control, especially when, on Feb. 1, 1945, the then-separated Bogart told the press that he had “signified his intentions” to Bacall, while Bacall coyly answered, “I haven’t seen Mr. Bogart since we finished making our last picture.” It was clearly a bullshit line — they’d been spotted at nightclubs all around town — and after some complex maneuvering involving multiple trains, a farmhouse in Ohio, and the finalization of Bogart’s divorce, they were at last married on May 21, 1945. When Bogart kissed the bride, she exclaimed, “Oh, goody!”
Bacall became a star overnight, but her acting career was another story. In 1945, she was panned for her turn in Confidential Agent, a standard subpar Warner Bros. film, and rumors began to circulate that “The Look,” as the studio had dubbed her, couldn’t actually act at all. So she appeared in three straight films with Bogart — The Big Sleep, Dark Passage, and Key Largo — all varying degrees of good to confusing, but nothing could replicate those same initial sparks in To Have and Have Not.
She had a baby, then another; Bogie’s health began to decline. But she was Hollywood royalty, a founding member of the “Holmby Hills Rat Pack,” and, along with Judy Garland, one of the only women allowed into the hallowed circle of drunken tough-guy masculinity. Starring alongside Marilyn Monroe and Betty Grable in 1953’s How to Marry a Millionaire, it’s as if Bacall’s operating in an entirely different register of sexuality and femininity. If they’re all softness and delight, she’s the one in the corner with a stiff drink and resting bitchface.
Bacall kept acting for decades — she acted through and after Bogie’s death in 1957, amidst her scandalous engagement to fellow Brat Packer Frank Sinatra, and her tumultuous marriage to actor Jason Robards. As she approached the age when most stars recede from the spotlight, she worked more frequently: Her filmography through the ’80s and ’90s is a steady stream of all manner of projects. She was never truly a great actress, but I don’t mean that as blasphemy or insult. Indeed, she was always game — whether to submit to the abundance of Douglas Sirk in 1956’s Written on the Wind or the discipline of Lars von Trier in 2003’s Dogville — and did everything from a Sopranos cameo to coffee commercials.
She didn’t have the dexterity of Katharine Hepburn, or the emotional register of Elizabeth Taylor. She needed a particular type of script, role, and leading man to activate the ineffable thing that made her beguiling, and it just so happened that that happened at the beginning of her career. But many, many of Hollywood’s greatest stars weren’t actually phenomenal at the craft of acting. They were amazing stars, which is another way of saying that everything about them, on- and off-screen, created an image that seemed to fulfill some societal desire. She was the answer to an unspoken yet overarching question about women and sexuality in the middle of the 1940s, and her marriage to Bogie, and the way that their relationship seemed to fundamentally work despite the age difference and his past philandering, worked to strengthen a somewhat hobbled conception of the endurance of true love.
As she aged, Bacall was radically unwilling to hide or apologize for the change in her body and face: As she told The Daily Telegraph back in 1988, “I think your whole life shows on your face and you should be proud of that.” That sort of defiance — both against societal expectations and the men in her life — defined her image from the start, and long differentiated her from her contemporaries. In almost everything she did, her voice was too low, her stance was too square, her breasts were too small, her figure was too slight, her attitude was too forward. And yet, when she gave you that look, you couldn’t look away.
In a 2011 profile in Vanity Fair, Bacall, then 86, said, “My obit is going to be full of Bogart, I’m sure.” She was, of course, right. And it’s not that she didn’t go on to live fully realized second and third acts of her life, or experience other great loves, or move beyond the person she was when she met and fell for Bogart. It’s that her image — an image that has come to represent so much about sophistication, wit, glamour, self-possession, and sex appeal — was built on the foundation of their interaction. It’s not that he “made” her. It’s that together, they made something iconic — something that Bacall’s resilience and longevity only continued to expand and amplify.
Over the years, Bacall’s face aged and weathered, but the intensity of her look, and its inherent challenge, remained: Here is who I am, it seemed to say, and here is how little shit I’ll accept from you. And that attitude, and the way that it’s been incorporated into our understanding of beauty, grace, and sophistication, is perhaps the most powerful and enduring of Bacall’s myriad legacies.