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Lauren Bacall - Star of the Month
Remind Me

Lauren Bacall - Wednesdays in September

With her sultry glance, husky voice and brash, no-nonsense attitude, Lauren Bacall proved that a woman could be a man's equal and pal yet still be sexy. Husband Humphrey Bogart referred to her as a "regular Joe," and that was the persona that made her a star. Even in more sophisticated roles, there was a down-to-earth quality about her that audiences found instantly appealing.

She was born Betty Joan Perske in New York and grew up the only child of a hard-working single mother. After considering a dancing career as a child, she switched to acting, attending the American Academy of Dramatic Arts, where she befriended the young Kirk Douglas. After she made it big, she would help him get his start in films.

Modeling put food on the table while she was pursuing work as an actress. It also captured the attention of Howard Hawks' wife Slim, who saw Bacall on the cover of Harper's Bazaar and recommended her to her husband. Hawks was looking for an unknown to pair with Humphrey Bogart for To Have and Have Not (1944), one of the many wartime thrillers made in the mold of Casablanca (1942). For the female lead, he wanted an actress who could match Bogie for insolence. With nobody in Hollywood who filled the bill, he transformed Bacall into that woman, creating a screen image based on Marlene Dietrich and his wife Slim. To lower her voice, she drove into the Hollywood Hills and read The Robe out loud. On-set nerves made her head shake so badly she had to keep her chin down and look up at people to hold it still, which increased her insolent air. Warner Bros. publicists called her "The Look," and when the film opened, she became a star.

But she got more than a career out of To Have and Have Not. She also found the great love of her life. Although not thrilled to be working with Bogart when she first found out about it, the 19-year-old newcomer and the 45-year-old star soon fell in love. There were only two problems. Bogart was married to temperamental, alcoholic actress Mayo Methot, and Hawks didn't want his protégée getting mixed up with her leading man. He even tried fixing her up with Clark Gable. When production was completed, the Bogie and his "Baby" said goodbye.

The box office threw them back together. To Have and Have Not did so well, Warner Bros. demanded a re-teaming, and Hawks obliged with Raymond Chandler's classic private eye story, The Big Sleep (1946). During production, Bogart finally decided to leave his wife. He and Bacall were married after completing their second film together.

Meanwhile, Warner's executives decided Bacall's third completed film, the espionage drama Confidential Agent (1945), should be her second release, arguing that the timely subject matter would be more commercial. Unfortunately for Bacall, her performance as a society girl hooked up with underground agent Charles Boyer, fared poorly with critics, who wondered what had happened to the magical actress from her first film. At the urging of Bacall's agent, Hawks went back into production on The Big Sleep, shooting new scenes to build up Bacall's part as a society girl clashing with the private eye hired to keep her sister out of trouble. When the altered film premiered in 1946 (GIs overseas had seen the film's first version, which was recently restored), Bacall was back on top.

Once Bacall had married Bogart, she was more interested in being a wife and mother (they had two children, Stephen and Leslie) than in stardom. They re-teamed twice more, for the film noir Dark Passage (1947) and the gangster drama Key Largo (1948), and even did a cameo as themselves in the Dennis Morgan-Jack Carson comedy Two Guys from Milwaukee (1946). But she also took time off from the screen to accompany him on location shooting for films like The Treasure of the Sierra Madre (1948) and The African Queen (1951). She was off-screen for a year before joining her old friend Kirk Douglas for Young Man with a Horn (1950), playing a neurotic socialite some historians have suggested was a thinly veiled lesbian (the subject was forbidden by censors of the day). She took an even longer break before demonstrating her flair for comedy in How to Marry a Millionaire (1953), easily dominating the film against screen-grabbing competition from Marilyn Monroe and Betty Grable.

Yet even though she appeared on screen only occasionally, she managed to make each appearance an event. Through the '50s, she had major roles as a psychiatrist involved with her married boss (Richard Widmark) in The Cobweb (1955) and a fashion designer married to sports writer Gregory Peck in Designing Woman (1957), both directed by Vincente Minnelli. When Bogart died in 1957, however, followed by her disastrous affair with Frank Sinatra, Bacall decided to return to New York.

While focusing on stage work and a marriage to Jason Robards, Bacall made only three films in the '60s: the horror film Shock Treatment (1964), in which she played a psychiatrist on the trail of a fortune; the romantic comedy Sex and the Single Girl (1964), in which she had a supporting role as Henry Fonda's wife; and the film noir Harper (1966), playing private eye Paul Newman's wheelchair-bound employer (a homage to The Big Sleep, in which her wheel-chair bound father had hired Bogart).

Then Bacall's stage career took off in a new direction. In 1970, she won Bette Davis' role as Margo Channing in Applause, the musical version of the classic All About Eve. The role brought her a Tony Award and some of her most interesting film assignments, including the all-star Agatha Christie mystery Murder on the Orient Express (1974) and John Wayne's last film, The Shootist (1976). In 1981 she scored another hit and won another Tony, this time with one of Katharine Hepburn's most famous roles, as a sophisticated political columnist married to a sports reporter in the musical version of Woman of the Year.

Since then, Bacall has been in demand as both a supporting actress and voiceover talent for commercials selling everything from luxury cruises to cat food. She won her only Ocsar® nomination, for Best Supporting Actress, playing Barbra Streisand's glamorous mother in The Mirror Has Two Faces (1996) and teamed with Nicole Kidman for Dogville (2003) and Birth (2004). As glamorous in her eighties as she was 60 years ago, she remains a working actress appearing in such recent films as The Walker (2007), Wide Blue Yonder (2010) and The Forger (2012).

by Frank Miller

* Titles in bold will air on TCM in September