Remembering Lauren Bacall's Most Indelible Roles


Betty Perske was 19, ambitious and sultry. From the cat-like green eyes to the legs that stretched from Canada to Mexico the teenage fashion model was something to look at — but could she act? Howard Hawks, director of Bringing Up Baby, promptly signed her to a personal contract and suggested a new name. Lauren better matched her patrician looks. Bacall was close enough to Bacal, her mother’s maiden name.

With the supreme assurance of a seasoned adventuress, Lauren Bacall loped onto the set of Hawks’ To Have and Have Not (1944). The confidence was partially an act: She trembled so much that she lowered her chin, bracing it on her doe-like neck and lifted up her eyes to co-star Humphrey Bogart, just one of approximately100 million Americans immediately besotted with what reporters called “The Look.”  Yeah, she could act. And she was something new: Here was a gal who put the moves on the guy and didn’t wait for him to take the lead. This was no shrinking violet, but a Venus flytrap, who over the course of her decades-long career worked with every great director from Howard Hawks to Lars von Trier. Married to Bogart for 12 years until his death in 1957, Bacall was a Hollywood legend, a Tony-winning actress, an enchanting memoirist, and an all-around straight-shooter. She died yesterday, at age 89. Here’s a look back on some of her most unforgettable movies.

To Have and Have Not (1944)
Bacall is Slim, the womanwho casts a line for Bogart’s sport fisherman in this World War II adventure/romance that plays like Casablanca in Martinique. In one of the most famous seduction scenes in movies, impudent Bacall instructs the wary Steve (Bogart), “Whenever you want me all you have to do is whistle. You know how to whistle, don’t you Steve? You just put your lips together and…blow.” Bacall’s unapologetic sexuality and Bogart’s stunned response still seems modern. Another bonus is Slim’s husky rendition of Hoagy Carmichael’s “How Little We Know” while clad in curve-hugging black satin. Hawks gave the audience what it wanted: Three minutes to gaze at “The Look” without any plot interference.

The Big Sleep (1945)
Bogie and Bacall, by then romantically involved, reteam for Hawks’ murder-mystery based on the Raymond Chandler detective story. The plot is so convoluted that not even Chandler could remember who did what to whom. All the better for the audience to focus on Bogart’s Phillip Marlowe and Bacall’s Mrs. Vivian Rutledge, daughter of the man who hired him. While people are being murdered left and right, Marlowe’s attention is on the thoroughbred Vivian and their "horse race" patter is some of the raciest in movies from the time. Sizing up Mrs. Rutledge, Marlowe observes, “You’ve got a touch of class but I don’t know how far you can go.” Bacall’s Vivian doesn’t miss a beat: “A lot depends on who’s in the saddle.” Here was a dame who could go head-to-head with Hollywood’s favorite loner, one-up him, and dryly suggest they pair up.

Key Largo (1948)
Director John Huston was not as sympathetic to Bacall as was Hawks, and her performance as an army widow held hostage on Key Largo by gangster Edward G. Robinson is more conventional (i.e., passive) than her earlier films. Bogart plays the army buddy of Bacall’s late husband and the subplot of the growing Bogart/Bacall attraction is secondary to the hostage situation during hurricane season.

Young Man With a Horn (1950)
In this story loosely based on the career of Bix Beiderbecke, Bacall co-stars with Kirk Douglas (whom she once dated when she was a stage-struck teenager in New York). In the movie from Michael Curtiz, Bacall’s is not a big role, but she fascinates as Amy, a sophisticate to whom the rough-hewn trumpet player, Rick, is attracted. They marry, but Amy is less interested in her husband’s music than her girlfriend’s painting career and eventually leaves Rick for the artist and Paris. Bacall plays Amy with brittle entitlement and piercing wit, and years later the actress confessed that, at the time, she didn’t realize her character was lesbian.

How to Marry a Millionaire (1953)
Bacall co-stars with Betty Grable and Marilyn Monroe in this sparkly movie about husband hunters who rent an apartment in Sutton Place in order to snare a wealthy partner. Bacall is Schatze, the four-star generalissima of dating strategy, prone to declarations such as, “If you don’t marry him, you haven’t caught him, he’s caught you.” She is imperious, commanding, beautiful — and a stitch. Nobody wore clothes like Bacall, whose minimalist frocks upstage the spangles of Monroe and Grable.


The Cobweb (1955)
Vincente Minnelli’s droll melodrama may be the only film in history to suggest that décor can induce neurosis. The trouble begins when the drapes in an upscale sanatorium get replaced and the doctors and patients start to act out. Before the trouble ends the chief psychiatrist (Richard Widmark) finds his attentions shifting from chatty wife Gloria Grahame to terse staff member Bacall. It’s an ensemble movie, and once again Bacall’s simplicity of dress and straightforwardness of speech are a contrast to that of her co-stars. With a cast that includes Lillian Gish, Charles Boyer, and Oscar Levant, it’s a fascinating movie that deserves more attention.


Written on the Wind(1956)
In Douglas Sirk’s unironic melodrama — a progenitor of TV’s Dallas — the capable Bacall catches the eyes of Rock Hudson and Robert Stack, the latter an oil baron who marries her. Stack’s sister (Dorothy Malone) is wildly jealous that Bacall has bewitched both her brother and the man she loves and from there, the melodrama turns positively operatic. Bacall doesn’t have a lot to do but dress in crisp white blouses and furrow her lush eyebrows, but she does it with conviction.


Designing Woman (1957)
Vincente Minnelli adored Bacall, and it shows in this merry comedy about a sportswriter (Gregory Peck) who falls in love with a fashion designer (Bacall) and marries her, even though they have nothing in common and even though he’s sorta engaged to an entertainer (Dolores Grey). At long last, another leading role with Bacall front, center, seductive, tough, vulnerable and, blow-for-blow, fully Peck’s match. The film was made during Bogart’s last days (he died of cancer shortly afterwards) and one sees Bacall’s delight in having something, anything, to laugh at.

The Shootist (1976)
Don Siegel’s end-of-the-West allegory stars John Wayne (in his final screen performance) as a dying gunman and Bacall as a widow at whose boardinghouse the legend lodges. It’s a gentle, elegiac film about what is implied and not said. Both Wayne and Bacall speak volumes with wise and world-weary eyes. Ron Howard plays Bacall’s son who idolizes the older man.

The Mirror Has Two Faces (1996)
Though she had been making movies for more than 40 years, Bacall received her first Oscar nomination (for supporting actress) in the role of an overbearing, narcissistic beauty who is mother to an ugly duckling Barbara Streisand in the Streisand-directed film. Her one-liners are barbed with venom and perfectly aimed to deflate her daughter’s ego. When Streisand asks her mother to make her a cup of coffee, Bacall retorts, “I’ve buried a husband. I’ve raised two daughters. I’ve made my coffee.” And how. Her majestically lined face, unmodified by cosmetic intervention, embodied her lifelong motto, “I think your whole life shows in your face and you should be proud of that.”

Photo credits: Everett Collection