She was 19 when she began work on To Have and Have Not, directed by the seasoned and successful Howard Hawks from a Hemingway story. Delivering a husky-voiced duet with Hoagy Carmichael, she glances across a crowded bar room at Bogart, chin down, eyes looking up through her fringe: the look.
Unlike older screen sirens like Mae West and younger like Marilyn Monroe, Bacall never asserted her sexuality. It simply grew out of her roles, which were, in her 1940s heyday, almost invariably intelligent, witty, and characterised by a serious flirtatiousness, especially towards her co-star in her best remembered films, Humphrey Bogart, to whom she was married from 1945 until his death in 1957.
Bacall got to deliver some of the best dialogue of those years when script was still king: once heard, her delivery of lines like “you know how to whistle, don’t you?” or “nothing you can’t fix” are unforgettable for their timing and timbre. They are small acts of perfection at the height of “the genius of the system”, Thomas Scahtz’s phrase for the way conflicted, contradictory, money-grubbing and largely philistine Hollywood nonetheless managed, as a way of doing creative business, to produce many of the greatest films of all time.
But even in this almost perfect system, actors couldn’t replace one another, something made clear when Paramount thought they could invent a new Bacall in the form of Veronica Lake. And consider another great performer, who started out slightly earlier but worked in the same period: Katherine Hepburn. Where Bacall was Jewish, born in New York, Hepburn was Connecticut-raised and Bryn Mawr educated; where Bacall simmered, Hepburn crackled. Neither fitted the femme fatale role, or indeed played it, but where Hepburn’s characters were competitive and feisty, Bacall’s 1940s roles were typically bantering but more like a pal than a sparring partner.
Not that she hadn’t the range. Starring in two of the classic 1950s melodramas, Minnelli’s The Cobweb and Sirk’s Written on the Wind, Bacall turned in moving portrayals of tormented love, while cracking out a comedy turn almost verging on farce in Designing Woman, also for Minnelli. After a successful stage career, she turned up in a number of very New Hollywood and arthouse movies, among them Altman’s fashion satire Prêt-à-Porter, von Trier’s bleak Dogville and, in a return to melodrama, Schrader’s political intrigue The Walker.
And she inspired others. There is undoubtedly a lot of Bacall in Jessica, the glamorous nightclub chanteuse wife in Zemeckis’s Who Framed Roger Rabbit?. It took two artists, Kathleen Turner and Amy Irving, to provide the speaking and singing voices. It’s interesting to compare this retrospective construct of the femme fatale with the source. Lake, Hepburn and Bacall would never have played so explicitly as Jessica, not for fear of censorship, but because, as Bacall wrote in her delightful autobiography By Myself: “Character is the most important thing.”
Jessica Rabbit tells us a great deal about glamour. Glamour is an effect of distance: you can be as explicit as you like if you are far enough away. Acting on the other hand involves proximity. Bacall, like Hepburn and even, at her best, Lake, kicked off her career as an actress, only to have glamour thrust upon her. Undaunted, her work after her much publicised marriage to Bogart involved her in forcing those two qualities together and watching the sparks fly. And how they flew.
Thanks to Hollywood she became who she was, and thanks to their archives, she lives on.