While the loss of the great Robin Williams is devastating – and perhaps more so for a person of my generation who grew up with him in movies like Jumanji, Hook, and Aladdin – I feel the outpouring of grief and disbelief has somewhat overshadowed the death of one of the last Hollywood icons. Lauren Bacall, while perhaps never as visible as Robin Williams, was a pioneer of feminism in the wasteland of classic Hollywood. Her verve, grace, independence, strength, and intelligence inspired millions of women and proved that a starlet could hold her own as well as any leading man – on screen and in life. Here are six great performances by the wonderful Lauren Bacall.
6. Eve (2008)
This is a short film written and directed by Natalie Portman starring Lauren Bacall as a sassy grandmother out on a date with a recently widowed man. She brings her granddaughter along, who is visiting for the night and wants to talk about her mother. This film does something incredible and shows elderly people pursing love interests, going out on dates, drinking cocktails and getting drunk. There is a certain emphasis on these people attempting to stay young. The opening scene is Bacall putting on layers of makeup, fake eyelashes, and a wig in preparation for the day. By the end, she takes it all off and looks at herself pensively in the mirror. Bacall is all the more stunning for showing her natural face, without makeup or augmentation. All the hard won character of every wrinkle over the years shines out of that face – and even if her character feels she needs to hide it, we know that she is beautiful.
5. Designing Woman (1957)
I’m not sure how I feel about putting two of the most understated actors of their time together in a romantic comedy. Both Bacall and Gregory Peck have been described as stiff and expressionless – which in my opinion comes mostly from people who can’t appreciate subtly. The movie is about a couple’s fiery romance and rushed wedding. When they return home they find that although they love each other, they don’t have that much in common. The story is told both as it happens and in retrospective voiceover from the perspective of each side. Peck is a sports writer with a classic bachelor lifestyle, while Bacall is a sophisticated fashion designer. The film was among both Peck’s and Bacall’s greater successes, with their banter witty yet loving and their performances more understated and realistic. Bacall is beautiful, independent, strong, and classy – everything a modern woman can relate to and admire.
4. To Have and Have Not (1944)
At twenty years old, this was Bacall’s first ever film and the first of many with future husband – and one half of one of the greatest Hollywood love stories of all time – Humphrey Bogart. It is clear how very young she is, but like every Bacall character, there is something ethereally mature and regal about her, despite her young looks. Bacall trained as a dancer for a number of years before falling into Hollywood and she certainly brings a certain fluid grace and coy sense of fun to her character’s gestures and movements. At the end of the movie there is a moment where she says goodbye to her piano playing confidant and goes swaying happily, flirtily, out of the nightclub and into her new life with Bogart.
3. Written on the Wind (1956)
This is one of my all time favorite movies, and certainly my favorite Douglas Sirk movies. Sirk was now for making over-wrought melodramas that often focused on leading social issues of the time. As such, these melodramas often had ridiculous and deceptively simplistic storylines. What wasn’t understood at the time – and really not until much later – is that these melodramas were meant as complex and subtle satires. Written on the Wind is one of the more ridiculous of Sirk’s films, telling the story of an alcoholic playboy and his nymphomaniac sister whose destructive tendencies ruin the lives of the brother’s wife and his best friend. Bacall plays the playboy’s wife, who finds out too late that he is an intolerable alcoholic and that she is in love with his faithful all American best friend Rock Hudson. Meanwhile, the sister spends her time sleeping around with half the town obsessing over the one man she can’t have. Bacall gives an understated but tortured performance as she quietly longs to escape the life she made with her husband.
2. How to Marry a Millionaire (1953)
This is one of those sneakily feminist movies in which Marilyn Monroe often featured. This one tells the story of three women who share an apartment together and plot their way into marrying a millionaire. Like Gentlemen Prefer Blondes made the same year, the movie has a tongue in cheek tone while allowing the women of the movie to decide their own fates and subtly manipulate the men around them without them knowing. Bacall’s character once again seems to have a wisdom and practicality beyond her years, taking things with an air of aloofness and ironic humor – a sort of take it or leave it attitude to events that perfectly counterbalances Monroe’s innocent bubbliness.
1. The Big Sleep (1946)
This is Bacall’s second film with Bogart and the third film of her career. This is also perhaps one of the best known and most enduring of either of their careers. The Big Sleep is a kind of abstract, wandering hardboiled detective story from the writer Raymond Chandler. Bacall plays the elder daughter of a rich and blackmailed household whose father hires private detective Philip Marlowe. The plot is vague, Marlowe’s investigation seemingly competent, but the outcome inconclusive and mired in mystery. Most casual watchers will be fooled into thinking that a mystery was solved. Bacall and Bogart’s chemistry is palpable, their banter quick and popping with wit. You can see that there was more than just love there between them – that theirs was a partnership forged from a giving mentorship.