At just 19 years old, Lauren Bacall stood toe-to-toe with her soon-to-be husband, Humphrey Bogart, in Howard Hawks’ To Have and Have Not. Demonstrating authority and a powerful screen presence, Bacall skyrocketed to stardom and never looked back.
Though mostly remembered for her turns opposite Bogie in classic film noirs, Bacall also had a notable career on Broadway and television later in life. She slowed down in the 1980s, only to re-emerge with an Oscar-nominated performance in The Mirror Has Two Faces – the first of her iconic career.
Bacall’s Early Years:
Road to Stardom:
After studying at the American Academy of Dramatic Arts, Bacall worked as a model and appeared on the cover of Harper's Bazaar magazine. The photo was brought to the attention of director Howard Hawks, who was taken by Bacall’s beauty and had her screen tested for To Have and Have Not.
Hawks took the young Bacall under his wing, convincing the actress to change her name while helping her create her famed chin-down, smoldering eyes-up look, which was the only position a nervous Bacall could hold while the camera rolled.
Marriage to Bogie:
Not only did Bacall’s performance in To Have and Have Not make her an overnight star, she fell for co-star, Humphrey Bogart, despite him being in a stormy marriage to actress Mayo Methot and 25 years her senior.
Bogie divorced Methot, and he and Bacall embarked on a brief, but secretive affair that resulted in marriage on May 21, 1945. They became one of the most famous couples in Hollywood history.
Film Noir’s Leading Lady:
Though poised for greater stardom, Bacall stumbled when Warner Bros. chose for her next picture the spy drama Confidential Agent, which miscast her opposite French actor, Charles Boyer. The film earned Bacall the worst reviews of her career.
Bacall reunited with Bogie onscreen for three consecutive movies, starting with the adaptation of Raymond Chandler’s novel, The Big Sleep, widely hailed as one of the greatest film noirs of all time. Though at times convoluted, The Big Sleep sizzled with chemistry between Bacall and Bogart and became a big hit at a time when post-war audiences were in the mood for gritty and realistic movies.
Bacall and Bogart followed with the thriller Dark Passage, a complex noir that again featured strong chemistry between husband and wife that nonetheless remained their least noteworthy effort together.
But with Key Largo, directed by John Huston, Bacall and Bogart were in top form in this stark noir about an embittered war veteran who falls for the wife of a friend killed in action while running afoul of a Florida mob boss (Edward G. Robinson). The movie marked the last time Bacall and Bogie appeared in the same film.
Peak of Popularity:
Despite being at the top of her profession, Bacall stepped back to raise a family with Bogart, having son Stephen and daughter Leslie. Meanwhile, she entered the political fray by joining her husband in criticizing the House Un-American Activities Committee, while making fast friends with President Harry Truman.
In fact, a photo of Bacall suggestively draped over a piano played by Truman was published in Life magazine, and caused both an uproar and a sensation while becoming an indelible image of the post-war era.
Back on the screen, she was the femme fatale in Young Man with a Horn opposite Kirk Douglas and displayed formidable comedic chops alongside starlets Marilyn Monroe and Betty Grable in How to Marry a Millionaire.
A Tragic Turn:
Following a decade of happy marriage, Bacall saw Bogart’s health rapidly deteriorate. He was diagnosed with throat cancer, and while he valiantly tried to continue working, Bogart was eventually forced to sideline his career.
Barely into her 30s, Bacall also put her career on hold to care for her ailing husband. Bogart succumbed to his cancer on Jan. 14, 1957, leaving Bacall both distraught and adrift.
Professional and Personal Missteps:
Just four months after his death, Bacall was seen in one of her best comedies, Designing Women, which was shot during Bogart’s final days. Alone for the first time in her adult life, she began an affair with crooner Frank Sinatra that soon ended badly.
Without Bogie by her side, Bacall struggled to find good roles. She starred in the rather staid drama, The Gift of Love, and fared just a little better with the British-made war movie, North West Frontier.
Focused Again on Family:
Closing in on 40, Bacall married actor Jason Robarbs, with whom she had a son, Sam. She worked very little during this time, appearing in the thriller Shock Treatment, the hit comedy Sex and the Single Girl, starring Tony Curtis and Natalie Wood, and the Paul Newman crime drama Harper.
By the end of the 1960s, Robard’s love of alcohol proved too much for Bacall and drove them apart. Despite the personal setback, some of the actress’ best work lay ahead.
A Triumphant Period:
Bacall moved away from the screen in favor of the stage and was a hit playing aging diva, Margo Channing, in 1970’s Applause, a Broadway musical based on the classic film, All About Eve.
Though not the greatest singer, Bacall nonetheless won a Tony Award for Best Actress and earned rave reviews for a 1973 television adaptation that also netted her an Emmy nomination.
Back on Screen:
A refreshed Bacall returned to movies to play socialite Harriet Hubbard in Sidney Lumet’s adaptation of Agatha Christie’s Murder on the Orient Express, which featured Sean Connery, Vanessa Redgrave, Anthony Perkins, Ingrid Bergman and Albert Finney.
Bacall had the distinction of starring opposite John Wayne in his last movie, The Shootist, and was lost in the shuffle of Robert Altman's forgettable comedy H.E.A.L.T.H.
Her next film, The Fan, a thriller about a stalker terrorizing a celebrity, earned attention for being released just months after the fatal shooting of John Lennon. It was a critical and financial failure.
A Decade Hiatus and Return to Work:
After virtually disappearing from the screen for most of the 1980s, Bacall returned at the end of the decade in Appointment with Death and Mr. North, directed by Danny Huston, son of old friend John Huston.
But quality roles were hard to come by, especially for an actress well into her 60s. She briefly appeared in Misery and reunited with Robert Altman in Ready to Wear. Her best late-career performance came in the Barbra Streisand vanity project, The Mirror Has Two Faces, which earned the vaunted actress her only Oscar nomination.
In her 80s, Bacall developed a taste for Avant-garde projects, supporting Nicole Kidman in Lars Von Trier’s Dogville and Jonathan Glazer’s Birth. She reunited with Von Trier for the race-themed Manderlay, starring Danny Glover and Willem Dafoe, and was her acerbic best opposite Ned Beatty and Lily Tomlin for Paul Schrader's The Walker.
The Bottom Line:
A stunning beauty in her youth and a brash opinionated veteran later in her career, Bacall had just about seen and done it all in her 70 years in show business. She starred in some of classic Hollywood’s most remembered movies and was married to its biggest star, but was oddly denied cinema’s highest honor: the Oscar. Regardless of her lack of Hollywood accolades, Bacall remained a legend of the silver screen.