Photo: REX USA.
Lauren Bacall, the husky-voiced, Oscar-winning, iconic stage and screen actress who died last week, predicted her own afterlife. “My obit is going to be full of Bogart, I’m sure ,” she told Vanity Fair in 2011. And, so it has been.
In nearly every think piece, remembrance, essay, or trashy piece of clickbait I’ve read this week, I’ve been struck that no one has been able to talk about Bacall without a heavy dose of Bogart. The New York Times obituary for Bogart, who died in 1957, mentions Bacall three times, focusing on his early life and illustrious Hollywood career. In contrast, the remembrance of Bacall that ran in the paper of record on Wednesday, brings up her costar and husband nearly twenty times. It ran side-by-side with a slideshow titled “Bacall and Bogart, a Romance on Film.”
It’s not just the Times. Everywhere you look, Bacall obituaries are rife with references to Bogie in both headlines and first paragraphs, as though their marriage were as or more important than her 70-year-long career. Many also took the time to opine on her affair with Sinatra. And, I get it. Bacall’s most iconic scene and her rise to fame owe much to Bogart and their dual mythos, starting with, you know, that scene, from in To Have and To Have Not (1944). "You know how to whistle, don't you Steve? You just put your lips together, and blow."
It's an iconic scene, of course — the most steely, commanding moment in the debut film of a then-19-year-old actress who would become one of the most important artists of her time. But, it sealed together two things: Bacall's smoky acting, her articulation of female agency and her relationship with Humphrey Bogart, the "Steve" in question, soon to be the husband whose specter would haunt her career until the very end. The constant citation of it in every memorial pegs her to him inevitably, even though they were only able to work together for a few projects and about 12 years before he passed. (Bogey, in fact, struggles in the scene. Her acting visibly knocks him off his game. His timing suffers and he's a little corny and unbelievable, particularly right after she leaves the room. No one mentions that part.)
Photo: REX USA.
Bacall, who articulated feminist views without explicitly claiming the ideology, was eminently conscious of her husband’s shadow, and the sexism that sustained it. In a 1970 New York Times interview she complained, "I've damn well earned the right to be judged on my own. It's time I was allowed a life of my own, to be judged and thought of as a person, as me."
The fierce intelligence inherent in her screen presence starkly illuminated her situation. You get the sense that her experience with Bogiecentricism made her adopt a life-preserving cynicism, and a fiercely protective extra maternal layer. Of her firstborn, Steve, she said that he had “been trying to find an identity for himself besides being Humphrey Bogart's son. It's a terrible thing to have to rise above that. You can't." The self-awareness is palpable.
So, if Bacall was actively resisting being pegged as “Mrs. Bogart,” in our
ostensibly occasionally feminist media landscape, why has her identity remained so tied to his? After all, she earned an Academy Award, two Golden Globes, two Tonys, and a National Book Award in a thriving career — all after he had passed away. Yet this week she almost seemed frozen in time,
tethered to the public's investment in her love affair with him.
Their marriage was one of the first Hollywood fairy tales that fascinated Americans, and it set a precedent for our decades-long obsession with the love lives of celebrities. But, because Bogart was twenty years her senior and had already established himself as a movie star by the time she came on the scene, his specter always overshadowed hers. It wasn't fair, and it was certainly something she bristled at. "Being a widow is not a profession," she told British talk show host Michael Parkinson. "And you live your life the best you can, and when a certain section of your life is over, you deal with it and that's very private. And then you have to press on and do something else for yourself because you're the only one that's left. I'm entitled to a life of my own. And I'm gonna have it, dammit."
She had it, but Bacall deserved better than to live in Bogie's shadow. What I love about her is the intelligence and pluckiness that defined her acting and her life. That is what we should be most remembering — her talent, her strength, her fierce essence — the elements that made her an icon of the silver screen. They were present and palpable the second she first stepped into the frame at age 20, characteristics on which Bogie had no bearing. In the biography of the great Bacall, he should be just a footnote. This weekend, in her honor, I urge you to watch one of Bacall’s films, just for her.