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Lauren Bacall, 89, lit up stage and screen with glamour and strength

August 13, 2014 at 6:35 PM EDT
Actress Lauren Bacall, who leapt into fame alongside Humphrey Bogart at the age of 19, embodied flinty, female independence as well as old Hollywood glamour. Ann Hornaday of The Washington Post joins Jeffrey Brown to recall Bacall’s mature screen presence, her infamous romance with Humphrey Bogart and the roles and directors that shaped her career.
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TRANSCRIPT

JEFFREY BROWN: Ann Hornaday is a film critic for The Washington Post, and joins me now.

Well, Ann, what’s interesting about that first performance for me is, it seems to start with a kind of Hollywood construct. That famous director Howard Hawks, he’s looking for, trying to shape a type, but Lauren Bacall manages to make it more than that, right?

ANN HORNADAY, The Washington Post: Oh, it’s mythic in all of its contours, because you’re right. It was that kind of straight from Shraff kind of narrative about, you know, get me the right girl.

And, of course, it was his wife Slim who suggested then Betty Perske, Betty Bacall, that he look at her. And then he did mold her. And I think one of the contradictions of her career is that she did come to personify this ideal of independence and flintiness underneath this amazing panther-like sensuality.

And a lot of that was created by Hawks. He was the one who suggested that she lower her voice, which she exercised every day to lower. He was the one who helped her perfect the look. So it was very much a collaboration.

JEFFREY BROWN: When you look at what defines her as an actress, can you compare that idea of glamour and strength in women then and today?

ANN HORNADAY: Well, it’s so interesting, too, that we are now kind of in the season of these young female heroines, people like a Scarlett Johansson, people like a Jennifer Lawrence, who are leading films and portraying, projecting this persona of toughness.

But unlike a Lauren Bacall, they have to kind of do it through action. There’s this new paradigm of a career, a woman’s career, which is sort of tentpoled or balanced on the one hand by these action films, and then by the more subtle character studies.

She was able to do this in these very sophisticated dramas, which have not aged one bit. If you watch “To Have and Have Not” or “Key Largo” today, they have not — they’re not dated. They’re of the moment. So I just — I think it really says a lot about — that a 19-year-old girl can be that mature, was allowed to be, and it wasn’t even thought twice about that she could project that kind of maturity in her screen debut.

JEFFREY BROWN: She, of course, is forever tied to Bogart. She acknowledged that. And if I read her right, at some times, she seemed a little annoyed by that, and other times she herself, as we saw in that Oscar speech, she herself embraced it.

ANN HORNADAY: Right.

And as David Thomson observed in the Washington Post obituary today, that was another part of that myth, was that we got to watch them fall in love on screen, which — and really fall in love. And it was obviously capitalized on by the studio, publicity people. Everyone knew that it was going on and saw the potential, the marketing potential in it. But it was genuine.

And that doesn’t happen every day. And so that was just another kind of layer, another frisson of that Hollywood narrative kind of weaving its way through her real life.

JEFFREY BROWN: And through her real life, a big life, on the screen, on the page, as we said, on stage, and a celebrity for decades.

ANN HORNADAY: Indeed.

And I just want to also commend her. Especially later in her career, she went out of her way to work with really interesting emerging directors, people like Lars von Trier, people like Jonathan Glazer. She did an incredible job in a little movie called “Birth” that Jonathan Glazer directed a few years ago. He just lately worked with Scarlett Johansson.

So there is this kind of through-line. But I just — it would have been so easy for her to sit back on her laurels, but she really sought out demanding, challenging material and challenging directors.

JEFFREY BROWN: All right, Ann Hornaday of The Washington Post on the life and legend of Lauren Bacall.

Thanks so much.

ANN HORNADAY: Thank you for having me.

GWEN IFILL: What an icon.