I don't know how Lauren Bacall died. I know I could find out with two or three keystrokes, but it seems… incidental. Trivial. Unimportant. In a way, it seems cheap. None of those adjectives have any business associating with Lauren Bacall.
There are, and will be, a lot of people more qualified than I am to go over Bacall's career, her personal life, and her incredible work both on and off the screen. So I'm not going to try and produce some sort of comprehensive chronicle or accounting of her life and achievements. I couldn't even if I wanted to. I couldn't, because the key to good reporting is objectivity, and I can't be objective about Lauren Bacall.
Robin Williams died yesterday. I love Robin Williams. He was a major part of my childhood, of my teenage years, and of my life as an adult. From the other side of a screen, he's pulled more emotion out of me than all but a handful of people I've met face to face. I've seen probably twice as many Robin Williams movies as I have Lauren Bacall movies. Robin Williams died at his own hand, 63 years old, with another ten or so good years potentially ahead of him, after being haunted and tormented by his demons for decades. Lauren Bacall was 89, her heyday long gone by, and her life by all accounts not only a happy one, but a magnificent one, including one of the only verifiable real life fairy tale true love romances the world has ever seen. I don't know how she died yet, but I guarantee it wasn't suicide. By any reasonably objective standard, I should be sadder about Robin Williams. But I really, really can't be objective about Lauren Bacall.
I don't know if Lauren Bacall was my favorite actress. It almost seems wrong to even call her an actress; although she was a gifted thespian who could fit into just about any picture, she didn't so much play roles as her roles scrambled to survive her... to live up to her. One of her earliest big successes was "The Big Sleep" (with Humphrey Bogart, whom she married right around that time). It was an excellent movie directed by visionary Howard Hawks, with a great leading man in Bogie, based off one of the three or four best detective novels ever written. As if that were somehow not enough (and Bacall's home-run debut of comparable pedigree, "To Have and Have Not," would argue that it ought to be), it also sported dialogue from the great Raymond Chandler, who across nearly a century full of crime writers, has yet to be surpassed. For an extra cherry on top, that dialogue was backed up by a script, based on Chandler's novel, from Nobel Prize-winning writer William Faulkner.
Bacall played Vivian Sternwood, a prestige role crafted by a conspiracy of geniuses in Hawks/Chandler/Faulkner, playing opposite the greatest actor who ever lived, Humphrey Bogart. Vivian was one of the most formidable women ever put to paper at the time, let alone to the screen, tough and brilliant and complex in ways other leading female parts from the 40s couldn't dream of being (Hayworth's "Gilda" exempted). She was a force beyond nature; any actress would be lucky to play Vivian, and any actress would have to bring her A-Game to do her justice. Lauren didn't do her justice; she ate her alive.
Vivian never had a chance. "The Big Sleep" had a spectacular script, but it was a detective movie script, and it wasn't about Vivian. Marlowe (Bogie) was the hero, and the movie was supposed to revolve around him. Vivian was supposed to be the love interest- one of four or five, at that- trading witty barbs with Bogie, falling under suspicion, and ultimately ending up with our hero as the credits rolled. What she was not supposed to do, was knock cocksure Marlowe on his heels every time she stepped on screen. She wasn't supposed to make you forget there were other women in the film (there were about six, and all memorable in any other movie). She damn sure wasn't supposed to steal the movie every time the camera was lucky enough to wander into her orbit. She was supposed to make a few jokes, look like a villain for half an hour in the middle, then kiss Bogie and fade away into the sea of forgotten movie love interests. Sure, she was supposed to be one of the better forgotten movie love interests, and in many ways her character was (intentionally or otherwise) a trailblazer for strong female leads, but at the end of the day she was *supposed* to be a supporting character in a Bogart movie. Lauren had other plans.
There are a lot of great scenes in "The Big Sleep". Bogart has a great moment with a bookstore clerk, Elisha Cook Jr. ends up yet again undone by his impotent confidence, and Martha Vickers was so striking in the movie Bacall's agent had to campaign to re-cut the movie so people understood that Bacall was the main female star. And yet, there are two scenes above all others that everyone who's seen the film recalls first: the first is Bogart's first meeting with Bacall, where their characters, both assuming they're the smartest person in the room (and in any other room, both would be right) try to rattle the each other with half-confessions, leading questions, and incisive zings. It's the meet cute that isn't cute all, an improbable insult tango that makes condescension and spite sexy.
The other scene comes much later on in the movie, after they've both warmed up to each other, in a nightclub. They talk about horses, and in so doing they make the elephant in the room blush. They've got other great scenes together, too, including bonding over a crank call to the police station and one of the great final lines in noir history (delivered by Bacall), but it's those two scenes that we think of first when we think of "The Big Sleep". It takes us a good thirty seconds to remember who the villain is, and a good minute, or three, or infinity, to conjure the plot. But we immediatley remember how little Vivian likes Marlowe's manners, and we instantly recall how both of them like to play the horses. We tend to associate both of those scenes with Bogart's well-deserved legend, but watch them again some time; Bacall wipes the floor with him, and it's all he can do not to beg her to do it again.
Yes, it's true that they recut the movie to favor Bacall. Everyone from Bogart to Hawks to Roger Ebert ultimately agreed that was the right call, because a movie about Bogie and Bacall was a helluva lot more compelling than a movie about Marlowe featuring Vivian. Bacall has some zingers in the film, even beyond the two iconic scenes detailed above. But it wasn't the lines that turned Vivian into an icon of the genre and earned Bacall a reputation as one of the ultimate femme fatales of film noir (she isn't; "The Big Sleep" is the only noir she graced in which she played anything close to a true femme fatale, and even then only barely; but man, did she play it).
It was everything else. You'll read enough about her voice elsewhere, and there's enough of her on YouTube to keep your ears enraptured forever after. There's a case to be made that her voice- long regarded as her greatest asset- was actually her greatest enemy, because the primal, sensual confidence that smoky, beautiful voice delivered was so memorable, it overshadowed all the other incredible things Lauren Bacall could do. There's never been an actress yet that could say more with her mouth than Bacall could with her eyes; she was called "The Look" for a reason. If they gave an Oscar for best performance between the forehead and the nose, Bacall would have won every year she put a picture out. Those eyes could convey emotions we still don't have names for. Her neck, her mouth, and her hips were about just as good. She could say more with a tilt of her head or a coy smile than most of today's starlets can in seven years of Oscar-baiting monologues. Bacall was nineteen when she started in movies, and the silent era had long since come and gone. If it had just waited for her, she'd have been the biggest star in the world, and we might never have bothered figuring out the audio. We wouldn't especially have needed it…. though if the Bacall of that hypothetical timeline ever did radio, there'd be riots in the streets to get sound added to her pictures. I meant everything I said about the rest of her, but there's a damn good reason that voice is what people talk about first.
Beyond the physical, beyond the mechanical, beyond devouring a role that by any reasonable estimation ought to have devoured her ("The Big Sleep" was only her third film), there was Bacall's endless survivability. She came into Hollywood as Howard Hawks' pet project, initially perceived as little more than a pretty face to feed to Bogart in "To Have and Have Not". It took her all of the first few seconds of screen time, doing nothing more than confidently leaning in a doorway, to disabuse the entire world of that notion, and when she spoke- never mind when she smoked- everyone knew they were looking at, well... "dynamite" seems too small a word, and "supernova" too garish of one; let's just say they knew they were looking at someone they were going to remember. Or, at least, so long as she was next to Bogart. For a while, that's who she was: "Bogie's girl". Everyone agreed they had stellar chemistry, but maybe that was just because they were in love? Maybe Bacall was only great next to Bogart? Maybe her star would inevitably fall with his, and she'd just be another forgotten woman beside the man?
Humphrey Bogart died in 1957. He'd made four excellent movies and one TV special with Bacall. Since Bogart's death, Lauren Bacall has appeared in roughly three dozen films (and some TV roles) opposite iconic leading men like Paul Newman (in the excellent "Harper"), Sean Connery ("Murder on the Orient Express"), and John Wayne ("Blood Alley"). Even Newman, possibly the greatest movie star of the post-Bogart era, struggled to hold his own whenever the lounging, dour Bacall claimed the screen. That she was playing a sociopathic cripple did him no favors; Bacall didn't need movement or emotions to take over a scene, so long as she had her eyes, her voice, and that withering essence of… again, I search for words and come up wanting; "cool," "style," and "personality" are all parts of the puzzle, but whatever it was defies adjectives. For the purposes of approximation, we'll call it "panache" and move on. All necessary apologies to Cyrano, now only the second most impressive practitioner of panache. He had a good run, but what hope does a genius Renaissance man warrior poet have against the raging charisma of Bacall? If in his own words, "All our souls our written in our eyes," then it would take him only a glance from Miss Bacall to cheerfully cede his trademark term, and indeed our towering romantic hero might endeavor to spend the rest of his life reading those eyes.
If the iconoclasm of throwing Newman and Cyrano onto Bacall's funeral pyre seems one-sided, know that the women didn't do any better; she blew Monroe off the screen in "How to Marry a Millionaire," and Marilyn wasn't the only other starlet diminished by Bacall's mere presence. Lizabeth Scott, one of the ten or fifteen biggest female stars in Bacall's prime, had her entire career defined by her passing similarity to Bacall. Marketed against Bacall as "The Threat," (an inaccurate nickname, though her one outing with Bogie in "Dead Reckoning" was underrated) she rose to A-List prominence on the basis of being kinda-sorta similar to Bacall.
Think about that for a second. Imagine if there was an actress headlining major Hollywood movies right now because she kinda sorta sounded like Jennifer Lawrence, and you'll have some idea of the incredible power the mere idea of Bacall held… and it was not an illusory power. Even into her old age, she maintained that indefinable fire and the effortless ability to instantly make any scene fundamentally hers, regardless of costar, role, or dialogue. Hell, about a year ago she somehow got suckered into a terrible "Family Guy" script, and she sold every single stupid line at a level so far beyond what the material deserved it almost broke my heart… not so much because she was slumming it, but because that was part of what made Bacall so great; even if the project, part, or lines were stupid, Bacall- and by extension, her characters- couldn't help but be anything other than brilliant.
But we're talking about acting again, or appear to be. But "acting" wasn't really it. Was Bacall a better performer than Paul Newman? Maybe not. But man was she cooler. Newman's a unanimous first ballot Cool Hall of Famer in his own right, but Lauren Bacall... She was so cool, she was too cool for Frank Sinatra (whom she dated after Bogart died, because obviously). She was so cool, the group that originally defined "cool", the group that to this day is synonymous with the very concept of cool, Bogie & Frank's legendary Rat Pack, was named after an off-the-cuff comment she made while passing judgment on the boys. She was so cool, Humphrey Bogart was the second coolest person in her movies, and it's generally accepted that Humphrey Bogart is to cool what the Sun is to light; there may be other sources of it, but on this planet, ninety-nine percent of it all comes from the same place. Maybe calling Bacall a supernova wasn't so far from the mark after all.
I'm rambling. I could ramble forever about Bacall and her gifts and all her incredible immutable qualities… and I never even met her. I could give you ten thousand words on her class, on her activism, on her lightning quick wit and unfailing quotability... But I've done enough aimless rambling about the particulars. She wasn't an actress so much as a dynamic force of sheer charisma and inimitable style, and she was cooler than the coolest man who ever lived (and he'd tell you so himself), but she married him anyways because he was as close as she was gonna get to an equal, and besides, they were in love. But we know all that. We know what she did to audiences, what she did to co-stars, and what she did to Bogart. Now I wanna talk about what she did to me.
I'm a professional writer. It's what I do for a living. I've written probably over a dozen female characters that are shameless attempts at capturing some tiny fragment of Bacall. I've failed miserably every time. Putting someone like her onto a page is a few shades past impossible. But even the act of trying, of flirting with the orbit of Bacall, is probably responsible for a lot of the success I've had. I won't list my books or the characters here; this isn't about me, it's just a segue.
Because Lauren Bacall's probably the one who turned me into a feminist. Ok, maybe not technically; I already believed in equal rights and pay, at least, and even today I don't qualify for every definition of that particularly contested term. But she made me think about things worth thinking about, and feminist or no, she damned sure taught me that my pick for the greatest man who ever lived was no match for the greatest woman. She taught me that confidence, bravado, dominance and swagger were not inherently male traits, and that any man who thought they were was in for a rude awakening. She taught me that words, put together in the right order by the right mouth, and the right mind, were a lot sexier than nudity, kink, or a perfect body. She taught me everything I needed to know about women and equality, sure, but also about life, and identity, and sticking up for what you believe in, and just generally being a badass. She taught me all of that, and she didn't even know she was doing it. Or, Hell, maybe she did. Far be it for me to put anything past Lauren Bacall.
She could be sexier with one word than Angelina Jolie could manage in twenty something years of short shorts and sports bras. She could be cooler with one arctic glance than Sinatra could manage in a lifetime. She was tougher, in going up against the US government over McCarthyism, in outliving her soulmate by over fifty years, in fighting for almost every cause worth fighting for, from AIDS awareness to free speech, than I or anyone I know will ever be. Not to mention that she started doing those things a solid decade or two before second-wave feminism started preaching the empowerment and fearlessness Bacall had exemplified from the moment someone put a camera on her. She did all those incredible things while being this impossible, mysterious, and yet incredibly human soul who now, seventy years after her debut, can still blow a new viewer's mind just by looking at that camera. And that's before she unleashes the voice.
The last time I cried was in June 2005. By 2010, I pretty much assumed that the "crying" period of my life was over. But I cried tonight, and not in a manly, "single tear rolls down the cheek as you grit your teeth" kinda way. I sobbed, I wept. I poured myself a glass of nice scotch in her honor, then I went and tainted it because I couldn't keep my tears out of the glass. Lauren Bacall was my hero, and even though she lived a long, spectacular life that anyone else would kill for, I'm never going to stop being sad she's gone. It goes so far beyond her acting, or her beauty, or her style, or even her incredible, incredible bravery and poise (which, by the way, belongs in the history books). This woman ruled the world by the time she was nineteen years old by sheer force of personality, and she reigned for seventy years. Nobody's topping that. Not ever. "Admiration" is too feeble a word, and "worship" is almost an insult, because no religion's God is anywhere near that damn cool. Staple "panache" to "love," and you're halfway to one percent of a word that almost does Lauren Bacall justice.
Like I said above, I'm a professional writer. I am able to live in this world, to pay my rent, buy my food and do all the other things regular people do, based solely on my ability to string words together to create meaning. And yet, I realize now I cannot even begin to express the impact Lauren Bacall has had on me, even if this article were fifty times the length. I am frustrated that I can't muster a better goodbye to someone who had such a profound and unique influence on my life, and millions of others. But that's part of what makes her so unique and wonderful: she defies explanation, definition, or compartmentalization. She is beyond us.
I am not a religious man, and I do not believe in God. But I believe in Lauren Bacall, and if it turns out there is a God, and he knows what's good for him, so does he.
So long, Slim.
There was nothing wrong with us that you couldn't fix.