Late Lauren Bacall helped define Hollywood noir-era ambience

Actress delivered lines with assurance of a fallen maharani, writes Donald Clarke

It is poignant to reflect that, when Betty Perske attended the American Academy of Dramatic Arts three quarters of a century ago, she fell under the spell of a young Kirk Douglas. Now that Lauren Bacall (as Betty became) has died at the age of 89, Douglas stands as one of our few living connections with Hollywood's magical era.

In 2009, when the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Science granted her an honorary Oscar, they acknowledged that connection in the citation. The award was in recognition of “her central place in the Golden Age of motion pictures”.

Bacall did not rack up a list of credits to compare with Bette Davis or Barbara Stanwyck. Her reputation stands on a series of tough films – many with her eventual husband Humphrey Bogart – that emerged in the mid 1940s: To Have and Have Not, The Big Sleep and Key Largo will live forever. But, as much as any actor of her time, Bacall helped define Hollywood's noir-era ambience.

It is said that she was always nervous on set and never quite believed in herself as an actor. None of this came through on screen. Christened “The Look” by Warner Brothers’ eager publicity department, Bacall moved with a supernatural grace and delivered lines with the assurance of a fallen maharani. “You know how to whistle Steve, don’t you?” she famously breathed to Bogart in To Have and Have Not. “You just put your lips together and blow.”


Show business has its own rules. Bacall was a grande dame of Hollywood for many more years than she was one of its front-line stars. Thanks to longevity, strength of personality and a charisma that never died, she became a sort of ambassador for the industry’s past.

Still sporting the most terrifyingly sharp cheekbones, she turned up on chat shows to talk us through boozy adventures with her late husband and pals such as John Huston and Frank Sinatra. She made memorable appearances in Robert Altman’s somewhat undervalued Health (1980) and Sidney Lumet’s Murder on the Orient Express (1974). In 1996, favourite for the best supporting actress Oscar for The Mirror has Two Faces, she failed to look anything other than furious when Juliette Binoche’s name was read out.

Born in the Bronx to Jewish parents – her first cousin is the former Israeli President Shimon Peres – she became a fashion model after acting college and was soon spotted in a Vogue shoot by Nancy “Slim” Hawks, wife to the great director Howard Hawks.

The relationship with that film-maker was, alongside her romance with Bogart, the most important in Bacall’s career. He signed her on a seven-year contract and went on to direct her in To Have and Have Not and The Big Sleep. Still just 19, she began a relationship with Bogie, over 20 years her senior, on that first film and they married a year later in 1945. The marriage lasted until his death from cancer in 1957.

The high period of Bacall’s fame lasted for, perhaps, a decade. If she had been less fussy and turned down fewer duff scripts she might have had greater prominence during the 1950s. But she managed to shine opposite the meteoric Marilyn Monroe in How to Marry a Millionaire and eat up the scenery in Douglas Sirk’s magnificent melodrama Written on the Wind from 1956.

During that time, she and Bogart travelled to Washington to protest against Senator McCarthy’s anti-communist “witch hunts”. The couple did subsequently back away from more radical colleagues and announced: “We’re about as much in favour of Communism as J. Edgar Hoover.” Nonetheless, she remained a proud liberal democrat throughout her life. “Being a liberal is the best thing on earth you can be,” she once told Larry King. “You are welcoming to everyone when you’re a liberal. You do not have a small mind.”

In 1960, Bacall married the actor Jason Robards Jr and they divorced in 1969. She is survived by two children from her marriage to Bogart and by one from her marriage to Robards. Millions born decades after her debut remember her with affection.

Donald Clarke

Donald Clarke

Donald Clarke, a contributor to The Irish Times, is Chief Film Correspondent and a regular columnist