Bacall found her voice, and America gained a screen legend
Lauren Bacall was nominated only once for an Academy Award, as Barbra Streisand’s mother in The Mirror Has Two Faces in 1996. But few actresses left behind so many memorable roles as Bacall, who was active on stage as well as in the movies and who died Monday at 89.
The young Bacall, with her famous voice, played the sexy young woman who in the Hollywood of the 1940s and ’50s was the master of the double entendre, often with her first husband, Humphrey Bogart.
As she matured, her voice stayed the same, but she dispensed with the sex kitten act. In the movie Harper, she has a minor role as the crippled wife of a kidnapped millionaire. She steals every scene she’s in, including those with Paul Newman.
In Murder on the Orient Express, she played the part of a stage actress (like the real-life Bacall) who is pretending to be someone else. She overplays every scene until, toward the end, she is unmasked and revealed as the noted tragic actress.
I always heard she wanted to play comedy parts, Bacall says, now underplaying, but her husband wouldn’t allow it.
She played a widow who rents a room to a dying gunfighter played by John Wayne in The Shootist, and you can see Bacall becoming more sympathetic and sad, as though she knew that Wayne was making his last movie.
The story goes that the legendary movie director Howard Hawks dismissed her because of her high-pitched voice. Bacall worked on lowering it. And two weeks later, she returned with her famous husky, sexy voice. Hawks made her famous.
He cast her as Slim in To Have and Have Not with Bogart, a 1944 movie in which she tells Bogart in that voice:
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.
At Bogart’s funeral she placed a whistle in his coffin. Always the great actor, she was the master of the perfect gesture.