Known for her sultry beauty and husky voice, American film and stage star Lauren Bacall (b. New York City, September 16, 1924) remains a vital and dramatic presence in her eighty-fifth year. Her best-known films are noir classics from the 1940s, To Have and To Have Not (1944), The Big Sleep (1946), Dark Passage (1947), and Key Largo (1948), but she has had notable success in comedy as well (How to Marry a Millionaire 1953, Designing Woman 1957). Although she has never won an Academy Award®, Bacall has won two Tonys® for Best Actress in a Broadway Musical, for Applause in 1970 (which also gained her a Drama Desk Award) and for Woman of the Year in 1981. The American Film Institute has ranked her as one of the twenty-five greatest female stars of all time. Not the least salient feature of Lauren Bacall’s fame has been her romance and marriage with Humphrey Bogart, her co-star in all four of the aforementioned films of the ’40s.
The only child of Jewish immigrants Natalie Bacal Weinstein, a secretary, and William Perske, a salesman, Betty Joan Perske adopted her mother’s natal surname shortly after her parents’ divorce, when she was five. (Former Prime Minister and current President of Israel Shimon Peres, born in Poland as Szymon Perski, is her first cousin.) Bacall studied acting during and after high school at the American Academy of Dramatic Arts in New York, working as a theatre usher, a lingerie salesgirl, and part-time fashion model before making her debut on Broadway in 1942 in Johnny 2 X 4.
Fashion editor Diana Vreeland spotted Betty Bacall’s flawless face and figure and put them on the cover of Harper’s Bazaar in March 1943. Out in Hollywood, the wife (nicknamed “Slim”) of movie director Howard Hawks urged her husband to give the nineteen-year-old Bacall a screen test. The result was a seven-year personal contract, a hundred dollars a week, a new first name (Lauren), and a lead role in To Have and Have Not, starring Humphrey Bogart. The chemistry between Bogie (at forty-five) and Bacall became the stuff of legend. He divorced his third wife and married Lauren Bacall in 1945; they had two children.
Bacall underwent a certain amount of grooming at the hands of Hawks and his wife. Her trademark “Look” developed in her attempt to counteract a quivering jaw, due to nervousness, which she would press against her chest as she raised her eyes to the camera. Her voice was deliberately coaxed downward to a sexy purr. (“Bogart-Bacall Syndrome” is now a real medical term for a kind of chronic hoarseness afflicting vocal artists who try to lower their natural pitch.)
Lacking the legendary chemistry, her films with other leading men – Charles Boyer in Confidential Agent (1945), Gary Cooper in Bright Leaf (1950) – did poorly at the box office, and Bacall would later aver that her career never fully recovered. But there were bright spots: Young Man with a Horn (1950) with Doris Day and Kirk Douglas, How to Marry a Millionaire (1953) with Marilyn Monroe and Betty Grable, Written on the Wind (1956) with Rock Hudson, Dorothy Malone and Robert Stack.
Meanwhile, Bogart’s health was deteriorating; cancer of the esophagus was diagnosed in January of 1956 and he underwent fearsome surgery while Bacall was making the slapstick comedy Designing Woman with Gregory Peck. Bogart died in January 1957, four months before the movie was released. After another movie with Peck and a British adventure film North West Frontier (1959), Lauren Bacall’s screen career began to wane.
She returned to Broadway for a three-month run of Goodbye Charlie in 1959 and again in 1965 for a much more successful play, Cactus Flower, in which she remained for two years. Meanwhile, she married actor Jason Robards and had a son; this marriage lasted only from 1961 to 1969 and she never married again. The few movies she made during the ’60s included Shock Treatment (1964), Sex and the Single Girl (1964), and Harper (1966).
On Broadway again in Applause (1970), a multiple award-winning Comden and Green musical adaptation of the classic film All About Eve, Lauren Bacall won a Tony Award® for her portrayal of Margo Channing. (And Bette Davis, Bacall’s idol as a girl, came backstage to offer her congratulations.) Another Broadway triumph and another Tony Award® came eleven years later with Kander and Ebb’s Woman of the Year.
Notable Bacall movies of the ’70s were Murder on the Orient Express (1974) with Ingrid Bergman, Albert Finney and Sean Connery, and John Wayne’s last film, The Shootist (1976). But she had to wait until 1997 to be recognized by the Academy, with a nomination for her supporting role in The Mirror Has Two Faces (1996); this was accompanied by an avalanche of other awards, including a Golden Globe® and a Screen Actors Guild Award.
Lauren Bacall has received Lifetime Achievement Awards from many entities, many of them international. She was given the Sarah Siddons Award twice for her work in theatre in Chicago, and the Kennedy Center Honors in 1997. Her movie career has accelerated again in the new millennium with Dogville (2003), Birth (2004), and The Walker (2007), and a cameo appearance as herself on The Sopranos (2006) getting mugged by one of the principal gangsters.
Bacall has always been a staunch liberal Democrat. She has written two autobiographies, Lauren Bacall By Myself (1978, updated as By Myself and Then Some in 2005), and Now (1994). She has five grandchildren, upon whom she dotes.