Lauren Bacall walked into the New York Hermès outpost one day in the early 1990s to have a bag repaired. For those who care about such matters, it was a bowling-style, not a Birkin, and the Siren doesn’t know what had gone wrong with it. Perhaps a row of stitches had unraveled from the weight of Bacall’s fabulousness. A sales assistant recognized her, gulped, approached, and said, “May I assist you, ma’am?”
The response was a glare from a pair of the movies’ most celebrated green eyes and the reply, “This is Hermès. You should call me madame.”
Now the Siren knows about this encounter because it was witnessed by her then-roommate, who as the store’s manager had to send someone else over to assist Madame Bacall. He was, well, a bit irked.
But the customer was right. If anybody ever walked into Hermes and deserved to be called “madame,” it was Lauren Bacall.
Hell, the Siren might have curtsied.
Bacall had at that point come a very long way from the grass-green youngster who, in To Have and Have Not, had to keep her chin low for Howard Hawks’ camera so it wouldn’t shake in close-ups. But the raw material was always there. She was smart, she was diligent, she had a mother she adored and a steel-fiber belief in herself. It was a question not of acquiring traits, much less of learning to fake anything, but merely of how to reveal those qualities she already had.
Read a review of early Bacall — here, James Agee on To Have and Have Not — and it’s precisely the way anyone would have described her for the rest of her life:
She has a javelinlike vitality, a born dancer’s eloquence in movement, a fierce female shrewdness and a special sweet-sourness. With these faculties, plus a stone-crushing self-confidence and a trombone voice, she manages to get across the toughest girl a piously regenerate Hollywood has dreamed of in a long while.
The face was so dazzling, the voice so unique, that the grace of Bacall’s movement isn’t mentioned enough. Lordy, the way she walked! Like watching mercury drops glide over the floor. There’s no sway or wiggle to it, Bacall had no need to flash her sexiness. She moved quickly, purposefully, but all of a piece, like the cat she was so often compared to. Cats’ extra vertebrae give them incredible flexibility and grace, which is why so many acting students do exercises that imitate feline movements. Or, they could just watch Bacall.
Bacall had three children — son Stephen in 1949 and daughter Leslie in 1952 with Bogart, and son Sam with Jason Robards in 1961 — and was widowed at a young age. It’s obvious that she had a demanding personal life, and a strong sense of responsibility that went beyond her career. But speaking as a cinephile, the Siren can’t deny that she feels a bit of frustration when she surveys Bacall’s filmography. Such a brilliant start, with not just To Have and Have Not, but also the other films she made with Bogart: Dark Passage, The Big Sleep (the Siren’s favorite), Key Largo (a close second). And then, long periods of inactivity, in between films where her unique qualities seldom seem to be front and center where they belong. So often, as in the battily wonderful The Cobweb, her assurance and grace are lifting up a milquetoast character. It’s a huge help to the film, but Bacall's abilities deserved more.
That’s why, although the Siren would cite Written on the Wind as Bacall’s best film of the 1950s, How to Marry a Millionaire was her best role. Bacall was one of the few pre-1960 actresses who played a model while looking like a model; Marilyn Monroe and Betty Grable look like showgirls, not mannequins. As Schatze, Bacall is the ringleader and outwardly the most hard-bitten of this gold-digging trio. But Bacall is also the most lovable, because she plays it as a woman too smart for the room: "We better put a check on that one. Nobody's mother lives in Atlantic City on Saturday." She’s too smart for the movie, too (though the Siren loves it) but doesn’t let that show. “A character straight out of characterville,” she remarks about Cameron Mitchell, who’s plainly overmatched. Bacall in this movie reminds the Siren of something James Wolcott said about another actress: “She looks down from the heavens and thinks, I could eat you for breakfast…” The in-joke toward the end, when Bacall is trying to convince William Powell’s aging rich man that she’s perfect for him (“Look at Roosevelt, look at Churchill, look at that old fella what's his name in The African Queen”) emphasizes that a screen presence this strong needs a worthy partner. Even my 11-year-old daughter hoped Bacall would pair off with Powell.
Take Woman’s World, made at 20th Century Fox in 1954. The Siren watched it for the first time this week. It’s the story of automobile magnate Clifton Webb, who brings three men and their wives to New York to audition for a job as his second-in-command. The film is Jean Negulesco on Cinemascope autopilot and kind of hard on the eyes. It was still early days for widescreen, and Woman’s World makes you realize that stringing Rome across the frame, as in Three Coins in the Fountain, or lining up Bacall and Grable and Monroe, is not a visual formula that should be repeated with backlot interiors and the likes of Fred MacMurray, late-career Van Heflin and Cornell Wilde.
Also, this movie suffers from a bad case of June Allyson. She was second-billed after Clifton Webb, and again and again, we return to her Kansas City homemaker, who misses her kids and doesn’t want to move to New York, and says the wrong thing every time. She’s supposed to be deliciously unfiltered, but instead most of her remarks come across as mind-bendingly rude. Allyson was driving the Siren out of her gourd until the realization hit: The little woman is undermining her husband so consistently that it has to be deliberate. It’s The Shrike! All over again!
Nevertheless, if you watch this movie, the Siren guarantees you will thank your deity of choice for Bacall. Allyson gets her head stuck in the porthole of the boss’ yacht and yells for help. Bacall, elegantly lounging above decks in a fur-trimmed suit, hears something and settles a little further into her chair. Finally, after she gets up she says to MacMurray, “I guess we better rescue Katie.” The absolute lack of enthusiasm in her voice is hilarious; she might as well have said, “I guess we better go defrost the refrigerator.”
Cool and graceful, Bacall is obviously the perfect wife, only she doesn’t want MacMurray to get the job because he’s got an ulcer and the stress may kill him. She watches Arlene Dahl, as the Texas tramp married to Van Heflin, with a lift of the eyebrow calculated to drain the dye right out of her rival’s coiffure. She takes Allyson under her wing (because...um, plot? it certainly isn’t the character’s charm). Comrade Lou Lumenick describes what happens next:
The sophisticated Bacall takes the clueless Allyson shopping for a discount gown (that she will inevitably end up spilling something on). The latter sequence takes places in a strictly functional store with sharp-elbowed customers (but without dressing rooms) that is unmistakably meant to be the legendary Loehmann’s — which Bacall, a former fashion model from the Bronx, later mentioned several times in her autobiography. I’d like to think she suggested it.
Bacall was one of the most stylish stars we’ve ever had. This, despite the fact that she was not famed as a clotheshorse. Circle back to that Hermès bag, chosen for its style, not as something that immediately proclaimed who made it and how much money was spent on it. The Siren always remembers Bacall looking beautiful, but has a hard time conjuring a specific dress. She was the epitome of the old Coco Chanel remark, that when a woman is well-dressed, you remember her, and not the clothes.
There have been a lot of tributes to Bacall; one of the Siren’s favorites is by Teo Bugbee at The Daily Beast. Though the Siren disagrees with much else he says, the single truest observation belongs to Richard Brody over at his New Yorker blog: "She was meant to play Presidents and C.E.O.s, editors-in-chief and visionary directors." Yes, just so. But Bacall, in her bestselling autobiography and in the many interviews she generously gave over the years, didn’t dwell on missed chances. Complain? Perish the thought, and anyway why should she? She accomplished so much — what’s good in that filmography is brilliant — and moved to the stage and two Tony awards when Hollywood lost its luster for her. Again, she knew what she had.
Here’s a story from Jean Negulesco’s autobiography, about an early-1950s visit to Hollywood by the Shah of Iran and Queen Soraya. The Siren so hopes it is true.
After dinner, during dance time, Bacall, watching the royal couple, whispered to Bogie, “She is so beautiful. Why don’t you get up and ask Queen Soraya to dance?”
Bogie stood up. “If I’m going to dance, I’ll ask the Shah. He’s prettier.”
Bacall, to avert an embarrassing encounter, hurried to invite the Shah herself. They danced beautifully, watched and admired. The Shah, obviously pleased and flattered, complimented his partner: “You’re a natural born dancer, Miss Bacall.”
“You bet your ass, Shah,” Bacall answered with hearty projection. Without missing a step.
One moment in Woman’s World shines bright: On the big night of the job announcement, Bacall has arrayed herself in a chiffon evening gown. The Siren isn’t crazy about the gown — it’s ruched like drapes and is a taupey beige color she particularly dislikes. But Bacall looks spectacular in this thing, and she checks her figure and face in the mirror with a smile of pure pleasure. So seldom do you get a star in the movies who’s shown openly enjoying her own beauty. Not teasing a man, not preparing for battle, just looking in the mirror and loving what she sees. So did we. Merci, Madame Bacall.