Lauren Bacall: At age 80, actress looks back and ahead, too


It was hardly what you d call a traditional pairing.

Humphrey Bogart was 44 years old, an established Hollywood actor, and married to wife No. 3. He was coming off his greatest performance to date in Casablanca, and in the process of changing his on-screen image from tough guy to romantic leading man.

Betty Bacall was a 19-year-old model from New York, the daughter of a first-generation Jewish immigrant family who was appearing in her very first movie.

They were thrown together by director Howard Hawks in his 1944 movie, To Have and Have Not, which was based on one of author Ernest Hemingway s lesser novels.

What resulted was a little bit of Hollywood magic. The film was a hit much to Hemingway s surprise; he had bet Hawks that the book couldn t be made into a movie. It also launched the beautiful young actress career (Hawks had changed her name to Lauren Bacall by the time the film opened), and most remarkably, it ignited a real-life romance that would continue until Bogey s death from throat cancer in 1957.

The now-80-year-old Bacall recounts her early days of acting, her years with Bogart, and much more of her personal and professional life in an interview that will be shown tomorrow at 8 p.m. (and replayed at 11 p.m.) on the cable channel Turner Classic Movies. The one-hour chat with host Robert Osborne is part of TCM s Private Screenings interview series.

Private Screenings: Lauren Bacall kicks off TCM s annual month-long Summer Under the Stars festival, during which each day of August is dedicated to a different Hollywood star and some of his or her best movies all shown uncut and without commercials. The lineup includes familiar names from Fred Astaire to John Wayne, and movies from Alfie to The Uninvited.

Worked as model

Bacall, who was born Betty Joan Persky, took Saturday acting classes at the New York School of the Theater while she was still in high school. She later attended the American Academy of Dramatic Arts, and while looking for acting jobs, she worked as a model and as an usher on Broadway. She finally landed a few small roles, but continued modeling.

I was not a great model by any means, she recalls. Modeling was posing, and that is not what I do well at all. I was really bad at it.

Howard Hawks wife saw Bacall s picture on the cover of Harper s Bazaar magazine, and suggested that her husband consider the teen for a movie role. Taking his wife s advice, Hawks summoned the young ingenue to California and looked for a film for her.

He said, I want to put you in a picture with either Cary Grant or Humphrey Bogart, Bacall recalls. And I thought, Cary Grant! (a dreamy looks comes over her face) Oh, boy! I thought, that would be fabulous!

Or Bogart (here her face scrunches up as if she s just sucked on a lemon), I thought, That would be all right, but

Little did I know!

Hawks ended up casting her opposite Bogey in To Have and Have Not. Some scenes in the movie required Bacall to sing, and that gave rise to a persistent Hollywood legend that appears in some film reference books even today but happens to be inaccurate.

Bacall had a husky voice even then, and that was great for portraying a sultry siren on screen, but not so great for singing. The studio, Warner Brothers, looked around for someone who could dub the songs for her after filming, and finally came up with a young singer by the name of Andy Williams yes, that Andy Williams whose prepubescent voice was a close match for Bacall s.

Some film reference books say Williams sang the movie s songs, but that s not true. Hawks later admitted that Williams had indeed been hired to dub Bacall s songs, but after hearing her sing during rehearsals, Hawks dropped the dubbing plan and left Bacall s own voice in the film.

But Bacall s singing wasn t the part of her performance in that movie that made her a star. It was the suggestive twinkle in her eye, and her ability to deliver lines such as this classic: If you want anything, all you have to do is just whistle. You know how to whistle, don t you, Steve? You just put your lips together and blow.

She and Bogart had an obvious chemistry both on and off the set, and before long Bogey left his wife for the much younger Bacall. The two talked of marriage but Bogart, knowing that Bacall had career ambitions of her own, issued her something of an ultimatum.

He said, You have to make a decision, she recalls in the interview. He said, I have been married to three actresses. I want a wife. I want you with me all the time, and you have to decide which comes first.

Well, there was no question in my mind what would come first, she says. I was so besotted about him this whimpering, simpering woman that I became of course I said yes.

The two were married in 1945 on Louis Bromfield s Malabar Farm in Lucas, Ohio, and would go on to appear in other films together, such as The Big Sleep, Dark Passage, and what was probably their most famous collaboration, Key Largo.

Several roles followed

Bacall also appeared in several films without her husband. She starred in Young Man with a Horn opposite Kirk Douglas, with Charles Boyer in Confidential Agent, Rock Hudson in Written on the Wind, John Wayne in Blood Alley, and Betty Grable and Marilyn Monroe in How to Marry a Millionaire.

In 1957, while nursing her dying husband through his final days, she starred in Vincente Minelli s comedy Designing Woman. That turned out to be her favorite role, thanks to the enduring friendship she developed during shooting with co-star Gregory Peck.

I fought for that part, she says. I wanted it badly. I took a lower salary and you know, it was very funny, because Grace Kelly said, I ll never forgive you for playing that part; it was written for me. It s the only time I ve ever had anything written for me.

And I said, Well, the luck of the draw, honey, you know? I got it. You got a prince, and I got the part.

After Bogart s death, while trying to pull her life together, Bacall was involved for a time with Frank Sinatra.

If I had ended up with Sinatra, we would have lasted about 20 minutes, she laughed. Asked why she felt that way, she replied, He was a womanizer. I came first with Bogey. With Frank, Frank came first.

In the 1960s Bacall returned to Broadway in Cactus Flower, followed by a Tony-winning role in Applause, a musical adaptation of All About Eve. (See, the lady really could sing.)

She returned to the screen after an eight-year absence in 1974, appearing with an all-star cast in Murder on the Orient Express. Two years later, she starred opposite John Wayne in his final film, The Shootist.

In 1979, Bacall wrote her autobiography By Myself, which is now being re-released in an updated edition entitled By Myself and Then Some. The new edition touches on some of her more recent accolades, including her selection as a recipient of the Kennedy Center Honors in 1997 and a 1998 Golden Globe win and Oscar nomination for her work in Barbra Streisand s The Mirror Has Two Faces.

Even today at the age of 80, Bacall is still working, with at least four movies in 2005: Manderlay, These Foolish Things, Firedog and Hayao Miyazaki s animated film, Howl s Moving Castle. She also appears in occasional ads for a discount store chain and for prescription drugs.

I m grateful that I m still working, she says. I refuse not to work. I m still interested and still ambitious, still want to be in good things, and I want to work with young, independent directors.

Tomorrow s Private Screenings interview with Bacall is part of a full day on Turner Classic Movies dedicated to the actress. Beginning at 6 a.m. and running until after 4 a.m. the following day, there will be 10 Bacall films, as well as a 1988 documentary called Bacall on Bogart, featuring her reflections on her husband and frequent co-star.

Contact Mike Kelly at: or 419-724-6131.