One of the leading ladies of Hollywood’s Golden Age died today after a stroke. The sultry, fiery Lauren Bacall was 89. MSNBC’s Thomas Robert broke the news in a tweet, and the Bogart estate has confirmed it. She was famous for starring — onscreeen and off — with Humphrey Bogart in such 1940s classics as The Big Sleep, To Have and Have Not, Dark Passage and Key Largo. In one of Hollywood’s great love stories, they married in 1945 and stayed together until his death in 1957. Four years later she married another acting legend, Jason Robards Jr.; they divorced in 1969.
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Bacall worked in films consistently through the mid-1960s and enjoyed a career renaissance a decade later with key roles in Murder On The Orient Express (1974), alongside the likes of Albert Finney, Ingrid Bergman and Sean Connery, and The Shootist (1976), starring John Wayne as a dying gunfighter. Bacall continued to act in films and telepics, eventually landing a supporting role as the mother of Barbra Streisand’s character in 1996’s The Mirror Has Two Faces, which Streisand directed. It landed Bacall her only career Academy Award nomination; she lost to Juliette Binoche in The English Patient — she won the Golden Globe and SAG Award that year — but went to receive an Honorary Oscar in 2010.
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Born Betty Joan Perske on September 16, 1924, in New York City, Bacall started out as a model, landing the cover of Harper’s Bazaar. That led to screen test that launched her film career with To Have And Have Not. She met Bogart on the set, and they were married the next year. (How could Bogie resist her after being on the receiving end of the line from that film that would be become Bacall’s trademark: “You know how to whistle, don’t you, Steve? You just put your lips together and blow.”) In addition to her husband, Bacall starred opposite Hollywood’s biggest names through the decade: with Kirk Douglas in Young Man With A Horn (1950); Gary Cooper in Bright Leaf (1950); alongside Betty Grable and Marilyn Monroe in her first comedy, How To Marry A Millionaire (1953); with Clifton Webb, June Allyson and Van Heflin in Woman’s World (1954); with the Duke in Blood Alley (1955); with opposite Rock Hudson in Written On The Wind (1956); and alongside Gregory Peck in Designing Woman (1957). During the next decade, she starred with Tony Curtis, Natalie Wood and Henry Fonda in Sex And The Single Girl (1964) and opposite Paul Newman in Harper (1996).
With a voice like gravel and charisma you could feel in the back row of the mezzanine, Bacall was not unlike Rex Harrison and Richard Burton: natural actors who became unlikely Broadway musical stars. Her two most famous stage roles were songbird re-creations of characters played indelibly on film by Bette Davis and Katharine Hepburn, yet which she made utterly her own.
In 1970’s Applause, based on All About Eve, she played the Broadway star Margo Channing facing down the up-and-coming Eve Harrington of Penny Fuller. The songs were by Bye, Bye Birdie’s Charles Strouse and Lee Adams, the book by the incomparable Betty Comden and Adolph Green. A little over a decade later, in 1981, she played Tess Harding in Woman Of The Year, opposite Harry Guardino in the Spencer Tracy role of Sam Craig. The pitch-perfect score was by John Kander and Fred Ebb (Chicago, Cabaret) — who, like Strouse and Adams, knew how to write character songs for actors whose strength was not in their voices (just as Alan Jay Lerner and Frederick Loewe had done for Harrison in My Fair Lady and Burton in Camelot). Bacall won the Tony Award for both performances.
She had made her Broadway debut in 1942, when her name was still Betty Bacall, in the ensemble of Johnny 2X4, and in 1965 starred opposite Barry Nelson in Abe Burrows’ revised French comedy Cactus Flower. Bacall returned to Broadway for the last time in 1999, in Jeremy Sams’s revised version of Noel Coward’s Waiting In The Wings. Set in a retirement home — a predecessor to movies like Quartet – Wings put Bacall onstage with Rosemary Harris, Patricia Connolly, Betty Henritze and Barnard Hughes.
Bacall worked in films and TV off and on for the rest of her life. She racked up three Emmy noms along the way, including one for a guest stint on The Rockford Files opposite James Garner, who died last month. (Bacall and Garner would reteam for the early-’80s films The Fan and Health.) She had a voice role on an episode of Family Guy that aired last season, playing a friend of Peter’s late mother who ends up seducing him. Bacall was honored with numerous lifetime achievement honors for her memorable career, including career accolades from France’s Cesar Awards, the Berlin International Film Festival, the Golden Globes and the Broadcast Film Critics Association. She received a star on Hollywood’s Walk of Fame in 1960.
Jeremy Gerard contributed to this report.