After being in show business for over 55 years, Lauren Bacall will be presented with the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences’ Honorary Award on November 14
On November 14, 2009 when the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences presents its Honorary Academy Award to 85-year-old Lauren (Betty) Bacall, we can expect what her reaction would be. She would give them her trademark ‘Look’ (pressing her chin against her chest and tilting her eyes upward) and drawl, ‘It’s been a long time coming, honey, but better late than never’! The ‘Look’ had been Bacall’s trademark since her 1944 movie, To Have and Have Not.
Her comments would be justified. After all, Bacall had been in show business for 55 years and her score card is quite impressive — 60 movies, eight Broadway hits, 16 TV shows, 13 awards of different categories, three best-selling books. Only the ‘Oscar’ had been missing. In 1999, Bacall was ranked one among the top 25 stars on the American Film Institute’s 100 years.
Why she adopted the ‘Look’
Bacall goes back a long way! Even by western standards, she was tall, endowed with smouldering good looks and a husky voice. New York born, she was a model and made her stage debut in 1942 when she was 17. Her appearance on the cover of Harper’s Magazine led to a movie contract from producer Howard Hawks whose wife Nancy groomed the young model in elegance and etiquette. She adopted the ‘Look’ to minimise her quivering nervousness during emotional shots. Bacall’s early movies were crime thrillers — Confidential Agent, The Big Sleep, Dark Passage and Key Largo — but she sizzled as a sex symbol in 20th Century Fox Technicolor Cinemascope hit How to Marry a Millionaire along with Marilyn Monroe. But unlike Monroe or Jane Russell, Bacall was never identified as a sex symbol and proved her versatility in the tear jerker, Written on the Wind, and as a winsome socialite dress designer in Designing Woman with Gregory Peck.
Her movie career had ups and downs because of problems in her personal life but when she was down in the movie world, she went up on the stage. Bacall always loved the stage and the 1960s were glorious years with hits such as ‘Goodbye, Charlie’, ‘Cactus Flower’, ‘Applause’ and ‘Woman of the Year’, the last two roles fetching her the coveted ‘Tony’ awards. Some movies of this period were quite brilliant, Harper with Paul Newman, Sex and the Single Girl with Henry Fonda and a well remembered cameo in Agatha Christie’s Murder on the Orient Express. She continued to work through the 1980s, 1990s and the new millennium and was nominated for the best supporting role ‘Oscar’ in the 1996 movie The Mirror Has Two Faces. As she kept winning one prestigious award after the other (Kennedy Centre Award among them), she was offered more plum roles, including Paul Schrader’s 2007 movie, The Walker.
The May-December romance
One does not remember Bacall only as a great movie star; she had several other roles to play. One of the screen immortals Humphrey Bogart, when 45, fell in love with 20-year-old Bacall. The May-December romance and wedding clicked, they were Hollywood’s ‘dream couple’ always surrounded by actor friends before Bogey succumbed to cancer in 1957. ‘Lauren Bacall By Myself’, a huge best-seller, recounts some of the tender moments of her days with Bogey whom she had chosen over great men such as Gable, Sinatra, writer Hemingway, Leonard Bernstein and actor Jason Robards. After Bogart’s death Bacall dated Sinatra but found him too possessive and married Robards in 1961, a union which lasted eight years.
In marriage or out of it, facing the camera or away from the limelight, Bacall remained a liberal Democrat throughout and keenly followed American politics. In a 2005 Larry King interview, she described herself as ‘anti Republican’ and went on to explain, ‘I am a Liberal, being a Liberal is the best thing on earth you can be. You welcome everyone when you’re a Liberal. You do not have a small mind’. In her liberal outlook, she was very much like another Hollywood great, Katherine Hepburn, and it was no surprise when in 2006, she was honoured with the First Katherine Hepburn Medal which recognised ‘women whose lives, work and contribution embody the intelligence, drive and independence of the four-time Oscar winning actress’.