Wednesday, August 13, 2014

Lauren Bacall (1924-2014)

I was still relatively new to the Oscars in 1996, and therefore, I was trying desperately to find any reason to talk about it.  I had a copy of the TV Guide predictions from Gene Siskel and those wonderful odds charts that Entertainment Weekly used to make (I'm going to sound like an old man here, but Entertainment Weekly used to be quite wonderful).  And everyone was certain that Lauren Bacall was going to win Best Supporting Actress, even if I got the impression that she might not have deserved it.  She was, they kept saying, a legend.  So when Juliette Binoche won for The English Patient (which would go on to be one of my favorite films, if not the title-holder, but I hadn't seen it yet), I learned that Oscar does indeed throw an upset my way every once-and-a-while and I was steamed for Ms. Bacall, the presumed frontrunner.  I was rather perturbed by Binoche, who would go on to be one of my favorite actresses, and though I had never seen her in anything, Bacall would instantly become a favorite of mine.

Of course, through the years I corrected that (though, oddly, I have still never seen the performance in The Mirror Has Two Faces that got her an Oscar nomination, but again-I have the OVP for that).  Bacall was a sturdy presence on the screen, and while never the great actress that a contemporary like Ingrid Bergman was, she was a Grade A, one-of-a-kind movie star in the way that few others can be.  Classy, breathtakingly beautiful, with a sultry voice and a whistle to match-it's no wonder that Humphrey Bogart fell in love with her.  Her career was never better than when she was being charmed (or more often, charming) Humphrey Bogart, and though I always feel a bit unkind when I do this, her best performance for me still remains her first in To Have and Have Not (though again, missing pieces in the filmography include The Big Sleep).  I love the way that she just owns that screen.  It takes a lot of guts to know you're good when you're only nineteen and playing opposite one of the biggest stars in cinema, but Bacall was what used to be called a dame-she had guts.

Her career was never quite as fruitful as it was in the 1940's, but she did go on to star in a number of classic movies throughout her career, including How to Marry a Millionaire, Written on the Wind, Designing Woman, and The Shootist (if any of these aren't sounding familiar or you've never seen them, do yourself a favor and start adding some films from before 1995 to your Netflix queue), and had a spectacular career on Broadway which resulted in two Tony Awards (oddly for roles that Bette Davis and Katherine Hepburn made famous on the big-screen decades prior).  Late in her film career she made something of a splash in Nicole Kidman's auteur-wilderness phase, appearing in both Dogville and Birth, and most recently picked up a Governors Award at the Oscars (sadly, because AMPAS is occasionally full of fools, this wasn't telecast so that twelve-year-old rooting for this woman who was called a legend never got to see her pick up her Oscar).  She was a classy, marvelous movie star, and probably one of the first actresses to ever introduce me to that concept.  Lauren Bacall died yesterday at the age of 89, but like all of the great movie stars, she'll live on as long as people love terrific movies that star confident, fascinating women.  RIP to a marvelous star, and thanks for teaching us all how to whistle.

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