“Just be careful. She doesn’t suffer fools.” That was the advice a publicist gave me just before they put me on the phone with Lauren Bacall about 20 years ago. She was promoting a TNT movie, The Portrait, and as a writer-producer on The Arsenio Hall Show I had persuaded the powers that be to book her on the show — even if, on the surface, she wasn’t the typical kind of contemporary guest we often had on the show. Quite frankly, I just wanted to meet Lauren Bacall, to just hear that legendary sultry voice on the other end of the phone. So I set about doing the pre-interview and apparently passed the “no fools” test because I found her to be a pussycat.
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Still it wasn’t like Arsenio (or even our studio and TV audience) was exactly the kind of fan I was, so I was a little worried about how this interview — which would cover her career and even her days with Humphrey Bogart some 50 years earlier –– might go over on the air. Magic Johnson, a frequent guest, was on first that night and as always it went really well. Arsenio is a huge basketball fan and loved talking about the game. Bacall followed, and within seconds she had Arsenio and the crowd in the palm of her hands. It turned out she also loved basketball and proceeded to prove it by going off our planned interview and talking expertly about the game. Who knew Bacall loved Hoops? Arsenio was smitten, and I don’t think he had ever seen a single Lauren Bacall performance in his life. That’s the effect this star had on people. She didn’t “suffer fools” because she was real, and you could see why all those legendary men from Bogie to Sinatra to Robards — and finally Oscar — fell so hard.
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So many of the obits in the hours after we learned of her death at age 89 late Tuesday afternoon used the word “legend” in their headlines. And there’s no doubt Lauren Bacall was a screen legend. But after her remarkable debut at age 19 opposite Bogart in 1944’s To Have And Have Not, followed in quick succession by the new real-life married couple (she was a quarter-century his junior) in The Big Sleep (1946), Dark Passage (1947) and Key Largo (1948), the 40-some films in which she appeared could hardly be called “legendary” themselves, or even classics in the true meaning of that word. Those Bogie-Bacall film noirish teamings are the stuff of legend, a match of stars and timing that come along infrequently but define the term “movie magic.” They used the phrase “the Look” to describe Bacall’s arresting appearance on screen and it stuck. They didn’t make another film together, though, and he died in 1957 after just 11 years of marriage. She made other films, of course, but none matched that remarkable beginning. How could they? There were a lot of very good ones like 1953’s How To Marry A Millionaire in the glorious new widescreen invention of CinemaScope (“You see it without glasses,” the ads for the film proclaimed); 1956’s Written On The Wind; followed by a fun pairing with good friend Gregory Peck in Designing Woman the next year. She co-starred opposite some of Hollywood’s most famous leading men — Peck, Paul Newman, Kirk Douglas, Rock Hudson, Gary Cooper, Charles Boyer, James Garner a few times and John Wayne twice (most memorably in his fine final film, The Shootist in 1976) — but not in any of the real “classics” those stars made. Bacall never even got an Oscar nomination until she was in her 70s, and I didn’t think Hollywood really appreciated her as much as Broadway did when she re-invented herself as the Tony-winning star of musicals including Applause and Woman Of The Year. Ironically, those two shows were based on classic movies (Applause on All About Eve) that didn’t star Bacall.
But the reality is she was a great star, no matter what the vehicle. It didn’t matter. She had it, whatever it is. The endless list of awards she would win — from those Tonys to Kennedy Center Life Achievement Honors to finally an Honorary Oscar at the inaugural Governors Awards in 2009 proved her place in the firmament. I was particularly happy to see the Academy recognize Bacall with that Oscar that had so eluded her. It was a sweet moment indeed, considering the stunning snub the Academy served up when she received her one — and only — Oscar nomination for Best Supporting Actress for playing Barbra Streisand’s mother in 1996’s The Mirror Has Two Faces. The movie was (wrongly, in my opinion) dismissed by critics as a vain star and directing vehicle for Streisand, but there was no denying the power of Bacall, then 71, as the self-centered mother who dominated her daughter’s life. It was a brilliant, three-dimensional portrait, as fine as Bacall ever delivered in the movies. I remember attending an early “industry” screening at the Motion Picture Academy’s Samuel Goldwyn Theater in Beverly Hills. There were a few stars there. After the movie, I overheard Gregory Peck telling a friend, “I think this is going to be an Oscar performance for Betty Bacall.” As the months went on, everyone thought that. She won the Golden Globe and the SAG Award for Supporting Actress. She was a lock if ever there was one to win the Oscar, and it wouldn’t have been out of sentiment for a great star. It was deserved. Presenter Kevin Spacey even told a reporter shortly before the ceremony, “I am just practicing how to say ‘the Oscar goes to Lauren Bacall.'”
The shock was so pervasive, and his visible reaction in opening the envelope so telling, that when he called Juliette Binoche’s name as the winner it was instantly one of the biggest upsets in Oscar history. Even Binoche was stunned, and she singled out Bacall in her very eloquent acceptance. “I’m so surprised,” she said. “It’s true I didn’t prepare anything. I thought Lauren was going to get it, and I think she deserved it,” she said before audibly looking for Bacall in the audience. Binoche won for The English Patient, which swept the Oscars that night, so perhaps being in the right film became a factor. I was watching the show at Mirror Has Two Faces distributor Columbia’s viewing party at a West Hollywood restaurant, and the audible gasps heard in the Oscar audience when Binoche’s name was called was nothing compared to what was heard at that restaurant. Bacall eventually showed up at the party much later, and I think I said to her something dumb like, “You were robbed.” I recall, even in that kind of disappointment, that she was the epitome of class.
So thanks, Academy, for righting a wrong five years ago and finally giving Bacall that Oscar she so “deserved” before it was too late. Bacall was genuinely thrilled to have it too. She was beaming when she said: “I feel very emotional, and very grateful , and not least of all that I’m still alive. I mean, after all, some of you are surprised that I’m still alive, aren’t you? Nevertheless, I am, and I’m here to stay. You better get used to the idea.”
With the “Look,” that voice, those eyes and that style, Lauren Bacall is “here to stay,” leaving behind a lifetime of work and indelible screen memories that will live on and on. And it’s nice to think that out there somewhere, Bogie and Bacall are together again.