It always seems to happen in a wave. While the passing of comic sensation Robin Williams is on everyone’s minds, it will unfortunately shadow yesterday’s sad news that the legendary Lauren Bacall died of an apparent stroke. Again, you may wonder why this merits an article on my blog: I don’t write about every celebrity passing, after all. In my tribute to Robin Williams, I even mentioned the names of several significant personalities that passed away in the last several months about whom I probably should have written something.
My reasoning for writing about Robin Williams was, simply, because I missed him. I was sad. While the passing of Ms. Bacall is very saddening, she hasn’t made a good movie (voice-overs aside) since her 1996 supporting roles in My Fellow Americans and The Mirror Has Two Faces, and she was almost 90 years old. While Williams’ death was the tragedy of a life incomplete, Ms. Bacall’s story is one of a life well-lived.
It is not, therefore, the tragedy that brings me to this website to type these words. Perhaps it is my guilt at not having written tributes to Philip Seymour Hoffman, Shirley Temple Black, Joan Fontaine, Andrew Sarris (who died right when I was starting this blog), and, most recently, James Garner. Perhaps I want to make sure that I don’t miss anyone again. This is, after all, a website designed to bring its readers into the world of cinema, and names such as these are the gatekeepers into this world. Missing these important names is to miss an opportunity to educate my readers.
This is probably a significant part of it. But there’s more to it than that. Just last week, my wife and I started watching some old film noirs, as I prepare for a series of essays called “The Great American Screenplays.” The series will be three essays long, focusing on the signature American genres of screwball romantic comedies, Westerns, and film noir. These will, in turn, work to introduce associated genres from foreign nations. In this, it will be proven, that the old American screenplays from the 30s and 40s (and 50s, in some accounts), can work as springboards into the European art house and Asian period piece dramas.
Lauren Bacall was going to be a centerpiece of these essays. Alongside Humphrey Bogart, Dana Andrews, Gene Tierney, and others, she was a goddess of the Golden Age of American talkies. She was a Hollywood queen, her marriage to Humphrey Bogart being the most talked-about aspect of the Hollywood private life. She was quick-witted, raw, edgy, and aggressive. Her “Look” was piercing and her iconic, husky voice immortalized by a filmography that spanned 70 years, beginning with 1944’s To Have and Have Not and ending with a voice-over in last year’s best animated film, Ernest and Celestine.
It was that debut role that placed her eternally in association with Bogart, the greatest star in American film history. She played her role in that ascension. She took his personal life to the center stage of the American viewer when her impeccable screen chemistry with Bogie (“you know how to whistle, don’t you Steve? Just put your lips together and blow”) caused a stir and, before we knew it, he was making The Big Sleep alongside her and taking the sexual wordplay to a whole new level. While the quick-witted fencing of double entendres laced the noir masterpiece with an incomparable pulse, and the twenty-four year-old vixen parried every seasoned blow from the noir master, the divorce of Humphrey Bogart from his current wife was leading to a new and culture-driving union with Bacall. Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie were only copycats.
Her fame was not short-lived. Not only did she marry Bogie, but she would also marry Jason Robards—and in between the two—have a brief affair with Frank Sinatra. What was it that gave her such magnetism to the power-players of American entertainment? My answer: the exact same thing that continues to attract us to her movies. Her assertiveness, her passion, her mystique are palpable amid the smoky backdrops of the film noir masterpieces. Her wit was always too mature to do anything but transfix the attentions of those who watched her perform. It was not just her characters on the screen. It was her real life power that translated so well to the screen.
Just last week, my wife and I stayed up and watched her and Bogie switch words in The Big Sleep. It was the first time my wife had seen this dark, mysterious masterpiece. She loved it, and I continued to love it. I realized that, if there was one weakness in the movie, it was that Ms. Bacall just wasn’t in it enough. Just as we miss the genre he helped to immortalize, we will miss her.