Chitra Ramaswamy: Looking life right in the eye

As a Hollywood starlet Lauren Bacall refused to compromise, a stance she carried through her whole life. Pictures: Kobal Collection
As a Hollywood starlet Lauren Bacall refused to compromise, a stance she carried through her whole life. Pictures: Kobal Collection
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A HOLLYWOOD moment in time, one as sculpted as a studio still. The year is 1944, the war is almost over, and women on screen are still permitted to be funny, clever, and sexy at the same time.

The location is a hotel room in Martinique, or – ahem – the Warner Bros lot in Hollywood. The props are, naturally, a box of matches and a cigarette. Our gutsy femme fatale, “Slim”, asks her considerably older co-star “Steve for a match. He throws it to her and she flings it back with a gaze so smouldering it’s a wonder she doesn’t light her cigarette with it. It is one of the greatest looks in the history of cinema.

This was the moment when Lauren Bacall, who last week died of a massive stroke at the age of 89, became The Look. A single glance, and a perfectly low-pitched line about putting your lips together and blowing, and a star was born (as well as a passionate affair with her co-star, Humphrey Bogart). It was the way Bacall, whose career spanned seven decades and more than 40 films, gazed up like a saint with sinning on her mind. The way her pupils became half moons hanging beneath clouds of thick lashes. It was those heavy arched brows, forever on the brink of rising in irony. Those plump lips forever poised for whistling, talking, or kissing. It was a look of complete self-possession, or “stonecrushing confidence” as one critic put it.

Last week Bacall seduced us once more, gazing up at us from newspaper obituaries, online galleries, and Twitter feeds as the world mourned the passing of a legend. Sultry and sardonic, cool and courageous, tough and tender, the look seemed oddly out of place in a 21st century obsessed with youth over experience and sanitisation over female sexuality. How often do we encounter such an expression on the smooth and startled faces of our own Hollywood actresses? How many memorable lines delivered by the leading ladies of today can we recite off the top of our heads?

The irony is that Bacall’s look and voice were make-believe. This was Hollywood’s Golden Age after all: rigorously glamorous, meticulously constructed.

Yet it was the most ruthlessly policed cinematic period that would bring about its greatest flowering of complex Hollywood actresses: sirens who could talk smart and sexy, take risks, and wear trousers. Bacall was only 19 when she walked on the set of her first film, Howard Hawks’ To Have Or Have Not and behind the mask of assertiveness, she was young, inexperienced, and terrified.

“My hand was shaking, my head was shaking, the cigarette was shaking, I was mortified,” she wrote years later in her autobiography By Myself. “…I realised that one way to hold my trembling head still was to keep it down, chin low, almost to my chest, and eyes up at Bogart. It worked and turned out to be the beginning of The Look.”

As for her trademark husky voice, the Jewish girl from The Bronx who started out as Betty Joan Perske was instructed to deepen it by Hawks. He told her to drive into the hills during filming and read aloud for long periods until she went hoarse. That and the constant smoking meant her voice, as much as her beauty, became her calling card.

Many have claimed that Bacall’s death marks the end of Hollywood’s Golden Age. To which you might say, what, the era of the exploitative studio system, the casting couch, and all those “genius” directors who tortured their leading ladies in the name of extracting Oscar-worthy performances from them? Good riddance. Or calm down, what about the fact that Doris Day is still alive and well and taking stray animals in at her Californian ranch?

On the other hand, they just don’t make ‘em like Bacall any more. On Twitter people were quick to point out that of the 16 icons striking a pose in Madonna’s Vogue, Bacall was the last to give “good face”. And how many of the current crop of Hollywood stars can expect a paid obit in the New York Times by the Leonard Bernstein family (Bacall’s Manhattan neighbours) stating that “her appearance at the back door... was always a welcome delight – even if she was complaining about the piano noise”.

There was something irreducible about Bacall, quite apart from the construct. Katharine Hepburn had the wit, Ava Gardner the beauty, Vivien Leigh the edge, Marilyn Monroe the vulnerability, and Grace Kelly the class, but it was never so easy to characterise Bacall. She was too human, too funny, too sexy, too frank, too unconventionally beautiful for that. And though Bogie and Bacall were one of the great Hollywood couples, she was too singular to be defined even by that. “I think I’ve damn well earned the right to be judged on my own,” she said in a 1970 interview. “It’s time I was allowed a life of my own, to be judged and thought of… as me.”

She was impossible to pin down, which is perhaps why she never recaptured the early success of To Have Or Have Not and The Big Sleep. The war ended and with it women’s temporary freedoms. The prim and proper Fifties arrived and Bacall, with her tough talk and simmering sexuality, had no place in them. Besides, she chose love over her career, refusing to be moulded by Hawks and marrying Bogart instead. A typically Fifties decision, you might argue, choosing to be the wife and mother, but she never regretted it.

What really made Bacall the last of a dying breed was the way she managed her beauty. She never denied it, allowed it to hold her back, or permitted anyone to change it. Which in Hollywood then and now is nothing short of radical.

She had a strong face that studio bosses felt needed taming. They wanted her brows plucked, her teeth straightened, and her hairline shaved. She resisted all of it. And then, most remarkably of all, slowly and openly, she got older.

“I think your whole life shows in your face and you should be proud of that,” she famously said. And so she wore her hair white and long. She always looked at ease in her body. The story of her remarkable life became etched on her face in deep lines. She played imperious matriarchs (Birth, Lars von Trier’s Dogville), Washington grand dames (The Walker), and Barbra Streisand’s mother (The Mirror Has Two Faces) and actually looked the part. She continued to be sexy, strong, and cool into her eighties. And always, she continued to own The Look.