Here is the entire quote:
“You know you don’t have to act with me, Steve. You don’t have to say anything, and you don’t have to do anything. Not a thing. Oh, maybe just whistle. You know how to whistle, don’t you, Steve? You just put your lips together and… blow.”
It is my all-time favorite film quote. It’s from Howard Hawk‘s To Have And Have Not (1944). In the 1990s, I had a variation of it as my outgoing message on my answering machine (do you remember answering machines?) until I got too many complaints from people who found it salacious. She famously uttered those words, but she didn’t write them. Jules Furthman wrote the screenplay based on a noted Ernest Hemingway novel. It is a testament to her acting that the words seem to be hers.
Bacall was born Betty Joan Perske was born in The Bronx, the only child of Jewish parents. She grew-up in Brooklyn.
She found work as a theatre usher and as a fashion model. Diana Vreeland was introduced to her by a friend that had met Bacall in a nightclub and the next day she was photographed in that exciting new Kodachrome film for the March 1943 cover of Harper’s Bazaar, a cover that is now iconic.
The cover was admired by Slim Hawks, wife of Howard Hawks. She suggested Betty Joan be screen tested for his new film. Hawks asked his secretary to find out more about her, but the secretary misunderstood and sent Betty Joan a ticket to come to Hollywood. At 19 years old, she landed in Los Angeles and landed the starring role opposite Humphrey Bogart in To Have And Have Not, proving that overnight success is not a myth. Interestingly, Bacall’s character in the film is named “Slim”. Bogart and Bacall married a year later and went on to make five films (and two children) together, including The Big Sleep (1946), Dark Passage (1947) and Key Largo (1948). She was with him until his death from cancer in 1957.
Hawks had signed her to a seven year contract with a weekly salary of $100, and the right to manage her career. She smartly changed her name to Lauren Bacall; she liked the name Lauren and her mother’s maiden name had been Bacal. Slim Hawks guided Bacall on how to dress stylishly and coached her in all things elegant and tasteful. Remember, Bacall was still a teenager.
During her screen tests for To Have And Have Not, Bacall was so nervous that she pressed her chin against her chest, faced the camera and tilted her eyes upward to calm her quivering. The effect came to be known as “The Look”.
After the 1940s, Bacall never got that “Role of a Lifetime”. She had become known for her work in black and white Film Noir. Technicolor robbed her of that distinctive beauty, with a face made of shade and shadow. Color film took away much of her mystery. She didn’t become a top-billed star of another film until the tacky thriller The Fan in 1981, about a stalker’s obsession with an aging movie star. I wish I could say that it is a fun camp fest, after all, there are musical numbers, but it’s just sad and an unseemly project for an actor of Bacall’s star wattage.
Her only big box-office hit in the 1950s was How To Marry A Millionaire, and except for the perverse sexual politics, it’s not all that interesting. Yet, it did afford the opportunity for Bacall to use her astringent, authoritative womanliness to contrast with Betty Grable‘s brightness and Marilyn Monroe‘s Monroeness.
As she grew older, Bacall acquired both gravity and a comfortable lightness that she never had earlier. In her 50s, 60s and 70s, she moved with the grace of a dancer and her work has a seasoned richness, even when she was doing cat food commercials. She was fearless, and she worked with innovative directors like Robert Altman and Lars von Trier.
Bacall made more than 75 films in a career lasting more than 50 years. She was nominated for an Academy Award only once, for Best Supporting Actress in The Mirror Has Two Faces (1996) as Barbra Streisand‘s oppressive mother. She was expected to win, but the Oscar went to Juliette Binoche for The English Patient. The audience seemed shocked, and Bacall received negative push-back for looking so stunned, but I thought her disappointment was touchingly honest. In 2009, Bacall was honored with a special Oscar for “A Lifetime Of Superior Work In Films”. Her final film was the crime caper The Forger (2012); she was 88 years old and still looked seductive.
After Bogart passed away in 1957, Bacall had a sizzling hot affair with Frank Sinatra right after his marriage to Ava Gardner had ended. Bacall wrote that Sinatra abruptly ended their relationship after becoming furious that the story of his marriage proposal to Bacall had been leaked to the press. Bacall had loved Bogie, with all his faults. He felt the same. Bogart drank and his moods were unpredictable and complicated, like alcoholics always are. It was the same old story with Jason Robards, whom she married in 1961 and then divorced eight years later.
Bacall was a staunch Democrat and defender of liberal causes. 70 years ago, Bacall and Bogart traveled to DC, along with other Hollywood stars, in a group that called itself The Committee For The First Amendment. She appeared alongside Bogart in a photograph printed at the end of a 1948 article he wrote titled I’m No Communist in Photoplay magazine, published to counteract negative publicity resulting from his appearance before The House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC).
Bacall’s friendship with Adlai Stevenson bothered Bogart. She campaigned for Stevenson when he was the 1952 Democratic nominee for POTUS. The next year, she wrote a column in Look magazine titled I Hate Young Men, where she was open about the men she found attractive, intellectually and erotically. Stevenson was on the list. So was director John Huston. For Bacall, fascinating trumped hot. Bogart didn’t seem to mind the article. But, he was aggravated by Bacall’s taking time off from filming to attend a campaign event with Stevenson, and her obsession with the politician and his attention to her. She was in her mid-30s at this time, with Stevenson and Bogart in their mid-50s.
She costarred opposite John Wayne in his last film, The Shootist (1976). They were close friends, despite very real political differences.
“I am an anti-Republican… A liberal. The L-word. Being a liberal is the best thing on earth you can be. You are welcoming to everyone when you’re a liberal. You do not have a small mind.”
Bacall has produced two volumes of exceptionally written, dry, self-deprecatingly witty, forthright memoirs: By Myself (1978) and Now (1994), plus she published an updated version of her memoir with a new final chapter published as By Myself And Then Some (2004).
Bacall left this world just a month before her 90th birthday in 2014. She took that final bow at her longtime apartment in my favorite New York City residential building, The Dakota, on the Upper West Side overlooking Central Park. I really loved her and I was sad when I heard the news, but I reflected on the career that lasted from 17-years-old into her late 80s; it was a life well-lived.
When I was living in New York City in the mid-1970s, I once followed her for 14 blocks. At one point I allowed myself to be right beside her. I considered offering myself as her escort to her destination, but just as I finally got up the nerve, she stopped in front of The Russian Tea Room where she greeted Liza Minnelli with a kiss and they swooped inside. A truly great gay moment for me.
“I think your whole life shows in your face and you should be proud of that.”