“Stardom isn't a profession,” Lauren Bacall once said. “It's an accident.” In her case, it was a very happy accident. But today brought the sad news that the screen siren, star of stage and cinema, has died at the age of 89.
Bacall was born Betty Joan Perske in New York’s Bronx borough in 1924 to a middle-class family. Enthralled by the theatre from an early age, she started working as an usher to earn money during high school before appearing in plays both on and off Broadway. But it was her striking looks that got her noticed, as a modelling job on the cover of Harper’s Bazaar in 1943 caught the eye of Howard Hawks’ wife Nancy. She encouraged her husband to screen test the then-19-year-old, and brought her to Hollywood. It was Hawks who critiqued her voice, leading her to lower the register and create her iconic, breathy sound. Hawks also encouraged her to change her name to Lauren, something she admits she later regretted.
Yet he also launched her screen career with 1944’s To Have And Have Not, where Bacall first developed what became known as her trademark gesture, “The Look”, which she has said was first developed as a defence against nerves when working with co-star Humphrey Bogart. “I used to tremble from nerves so badly that the only way I could hold my head steady was to lower my chin practically to my chest and look up at Bogie,” she said. “That was the beginning of The Look.”
The film had an impact on more than just her burgeoning career – she and Bogart fell in love, and he got divorced within months to marry her.
She went on to a fruitful career in film, albeit one that had its ups and downs, but encompassed movies such as Dark Passage, Key Largo, The Big Sleep, How To Marry A Millionaire, Sex And The Single Girl, The Fan, Pret-A-Porter, The Mirror Has Two Faces, Dogville, Birth, Howl's Moving Castle and, most recently, she voiced a grumpy matriarchal mouse in Ernest & Celestine.
Her stage career was just as successful, and she won Tony awards for shows including Applause and Woman Of The Year.
Bacall was a true Hollywood legend, a star of the Golden Age and, though she never won a competitive Oscar, she didn’t need awards to justify her place in the pantheon; she had presence. The Academy handed her an honorary award in 2009, but she’s best remembered as someone who disliked the term “legend” – “Legends are all to do with the past and nothing to do with the present,” she was once quoted as saying, so watch one of her films and remember her as a vivid, powerful actress. She is survived by her children Sam, Stephen and Leslie.