Tiffany Jenkins: What would Lauren Bacall do?

Lauren Bacall and Humphrey Bogart in To Have and Have Not. Picture: Kobal
Lauren Bacall and Humphrey Bogart in To Have and Have Not. Picture: Kobal
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MOVIE stars from Hollywood’s golden age have much to teach us today about grace, sex and being a grown-up, says Tiffany Jenkins.

If, like me, you are a dreamer, let your fingers take you online to Bonhams New York, the auction house, and linger wistfully over the sale list of the estate of the late and great Hollywood actress Lauren Bacall, which goes under the hammer at the end of the month.

The thing about actresses of old is that they didn’t simper, or try too hard, unless it was calculated and they were a killer

It’s what you would expect from the intelligent, wealthy screen siren: paintings, including those by Picasso and Miro; sculptures, eight by Henry Moore; African masks; decorative furniture; glamorous jewellery and other elegant things.

I have considered each lot, stretching out my arms, imagining her diamond and gold bracelets sparkling on my wrist, positioning the artwork in my study, the sculpture in the living room, and it all suits. I am trying her effects on for size, but not because it’s classy stuff or I am planning to bid. Some items are very nice indeed; others are, frankly, tasteless.

As much as I admire Humphrey Bogart, the statue in his image is charming only on sentimental grounds. But I am not buying, and not just because the prices are out of my reach: I am fantasising. At being Lauren Bacall.

Ever since I was young, to this very day, of all the actresses I wanted to be – and there have been plenty of contenders over the years – Betty Joan Perske, as Bacall was unfortunately named when she was born, is the one who wins the prize. The first time I saw her on the big screen, she just seemed, well, well cool. They don’t make them like they used to.

Was it her distinctive looks? The fabulous cheekbones, the steely eyes? Maybe it was her husky voice, and the downcast look she tried on because she was nervous. Perhaps it was because she was sexy but little of her was actually on show. She smouldered as she said what became her most famous line, in To Have and Have Not: “You know how to whistle, don’t you Steve? You just put your lips together and blow.” Fully clothed, with a hint of a smile, you knew what she was getting at.

Indeed, the success of the movies from this period reminds us that artists can be creative when they have to be. The reaction of Hollywood, of the writers and producers, to the Hayes Code, a set of industry moral guidelines from 1922 to 1945 which laid down a list of dos and don’ts in regard to nudity, sex, drugs, religion and so on, shows how inventive creatives can be when they face controls and restrictions.

But it wasn’t just Bacall’s sex appeal that meant she made it big and is still a popular star. Far from it. For me, it is simply that she was a grown-up. An adult, who I wanted to be. Confident and composed, she was a woman, never a girl. That’s even at the age of 19, when she appeared in To Have And Have Not. Technically, she was a teenager. She wed Bogart shortly after, when she was 20 and he 45. Were something similar to take place today, there would be an inquiry about the age gap and Bogie would be done for harassing a minor.

Watching films from the 1930s and 1940s is a revelation. We flatter ourselves to think we have come a long way today, from the sexism of the past. Instead, we have regressed. It was common, then, for a woman to be the star of a picture. And they were never the ditzy, quirky kind that hang around as co-stars in too many movies today; the cute but loveable, scatty but pretty girls.

The thing about actresses of old is that they didn’t simper, or try too hard, unless it was calculated and they were a killer (just think of Barbara Stanwyck). They were feminine, yes. But ballsy. And they were never feisty. Not just because the word used to mean a small, excitable dog; but because a real woman would never allow someone to describe her in such condescending terms.

Watch His Girl Friday, the screwball comedy with Cary Grant as a newspaper editor trying to lure back his ex-wife, Hildy Johnson, played by Rosalind Russell. He wants to win her back to the marriage bed, but also to work, as his top reporter. Hildy Johnson is smart, tough and funny. The writing is sharp and witty, with overlapping dialogue and rapid-fire delivery. The film is knowing without leering about being married. The central characters are equals. Of course she returns to him and to the paper, giving up domestic bliss elsewhere. As Cary Grant’s character says: “We’re a team. That’s what we are. You need me and I need you, and the paper needs both of us.”

Compare the roles of Rosalind Russell, Lauren Bacall, Barbara Stanwyck and Katharine Hepburn (another favourite) to the characters in Lena Dunham’s TV series, Girls. In their mid-twenties, Hannah and her friends are still, well, girls. They are practically children, out of control and confused. Though Season 4 sees them maturing, a little, I cannot see any reaching what we would think of as womanhood. I love Girls, of course, it’s a great TV series – and it’s right for today.

What does it say about the female of the species when she is rarely depicted as a surefooted woman? I used to think the elimination of the confident, capable woman from film parts was a feminist issue. Women have been reduced to attractive juveniles. But so too have the men. Sure, George Clooney is channelling Cary Grant. But few others do. Many main parts are for those in their twenties and thirties who act like kids, like those in The Hangover. A selective reading of films on offer maybe, but not, I think, totally inaccurate. Men on the big screen are not men to look up to.

Today, it seems as if we – female or male – find it hard to even act the grown-up.

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