Barely a day after the death of Robin Williams burned across the Internet, archivists were digging through their clip reels to pay tribute to Lauren Bacall, who died Tuesday after suffering a stroke. She was 89.
The circumstances are different, of course, and the death of a woman who'd enjoyed a long and remarkable career is not nearly as shocking as the circumstances of Williams's exit. But a legend is a legend, and her passing deserves to be remarked upon. It's a pretty good legend, after all.
Born Betty Jane Perske in New York City, Bacall modeled for Vogue, among others, and went to Hollywood to star opposite Humphrey Bogart in Howard Hawks's 1944 thriller To Have And Have Not. She was 19 years old; Bogart was 44. But she carried herself like she was his equal - and by the end of the picture, that's exactly what she was.
Their chemistry was so profound that Warner Bros. delayed the release of their next movie together, The Big Sleep, to add scenes with Bacall's character and tilt the general tone of the picture from mystery to romantic mystery. Unearthed in the 90s, the original 1944 version was included on a double-feature DVD with the 1946 release version, and the tinkering makes total sense; Bacall barely appears in the '44 cut, and her mere presence pulls focus away from both Bogart and the story.
Her additional screen time in the '46 version both bolsters the romantic subplot and allows you to focus on the rest of the picture, because you're not spending all your time waiting for Bacall to show up again.
That's magnetism, of a sort that doesn't really exist any longer. That Golden Age confidence and poise, the bristling intelligence behind those heavy lids - Bacall was truly one of a kind, and in that run of early movies opposite Bogart (which also included Dark Passage and Key Largo) ... well, she was damn near incandescent.
But working with Bogart - whom she married in 1945 - set an awfully high bar, and Warner Bros. struggled to figure out what to do with Bacall on her own. (Audiences were probably more to blame than the studio, forever wanting more of the thing they liked.) And Bacall's combination of old-soul self-awareness and stunning beauty might have worked against her somehow; she had great comic timing, but only Vincente Minnelli's really figured out how to use it in his fine, sly comedy Designing Woman. (Bacall was always the straight one in ensemble ventures like How To Marry A Millionaire and Sex And The Single Girl.)
There were always more serious pictures, but the ones with great roles - like Michael Curtiz's Young Man With A Horn or Douglas Sirk's Written On The Wind - were rare.
After Bogart's death from esophageal cancer in 1957, Bacall seemed too old to play roles her own age; she was just 33, but she bore the weight of his loss in her face and voice. She took a little time off, then came back in the early 60s as an older, wiser character actor. She'd married Jason Robards in 1961; they would divorce in 1969.
In 1966, Bacall played the formidable woman of privilege who hires Paul Newman's detective to find her missing husband in Harper. It's a good part and she has fun with it, the veteran screen legend toying with the beautiful young movie star. She was four months older than Newman.
She moved back and forth between TV and features, always brought on to add class to a project; first among equals in the all-star cast of Murder On The Orient Express, a weary companion to John Wayne in The Shootist. She worked with James Garner a number of times - guesting on a Rockford Files two-parter, and appearing with him in Robert Altman's lost 1980 satire Health, the forgotten 1981 thriller The Fan and again in the 1996 grumpy-old-Presidents comedy My Fellow Americans.
Moving into the late 80s and 90s, Bacall was basically cast as Lauren Bacall. Danny Huston gave her a plum role in his odd little comedy Mr. North; Rob Reiner cast her as James Caan's agent in Misery; Barbra Streisand tapped her to play her mother in The Mirror Has Two Faces - a choice that seems genetically ridiculous, but what the hell. (And in the end, it's not that crazy; Betty Jane Perske was Jewish, after all.)
In her later years, she started taking risks. Lars Von Trier may have cast her in his allegorical epics Dogville and Manderlay as a stunt, but damned if Bacall plays it that way; she plays the material straight and doesn't give an inch. And her voice work as a particularly cruel witch in the English language dub of Howl's Moving Castle is glorious; that smoky voice, filled with weary knowledge, is perfectly suited to Hayao Miyazaki's character design.
What else is there to say? Bacall leaves behind nearly three-quarters of a century of fine work and a reputation as one of the sharpest people ever to work in Hollywood. She lived a long life and she never really went away; that's how it is for legends. Asking for more would seem untoward, somehow.
Watch Eve, Natalie Portman's 2008 short film starring Lauren Bacall, Ben Gazzara and Olivia Thirlby here.