Ready for My deMille: Profiles in Excellence - Lauren Bacall, 1993

by Philip Berk November 18, 2019
Actress Lauren Bacall, Golden Globe winner and Cecil B. deMille award recipient

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Beginning in 1952 when the Cecil B. deMille Award was presented to its namesake visionary director, the Hollywood Foreign Press Association has awarded its most prestigious prize 66 times. From Walt Disney to Bette Davis, Elizabeth Taylor to Steven Spielberg and 62 others, the deMille has gone to luminaries – actors, directors, producers – who have left an indelible mark on Hollywood. Sometimes mistaken with a career achievement award,  per HFPA statute, the deMille is more precisely bestowed for  “outstanding contributions to the world of entertainment”. In this series, HFPA cognoscente and former president Philip Berk profiles deMille laureates through the years.

Left a widow at 33, when her famous husband died, Lauren Bacall went on to carve a remarkable career on her own which the HFPA acknowledged when she was awarded our prestigious Cecil B. deMille award.

She died at 90, and even then she was still sultry and seductive.

Ms. Bacall began as a fashion model and was noticed by Howard Hawks’ wife who recommended her for a screen test. Hawks signed her even though she was Jewish and he was a notorious antisemite. Her first movie was a co-starring role, although not above the title, in To Have and Have Not. The star of the movie, of course, was Humphrey Bogart, and it was an immediate attraction. Even though he was married, unhappily, at the time to a lesser-known actress, they were inseparable and they remained so over twelve years of marriage and two children until his premature death in 1957.

Bacall was an instant success. The seven-year contract she signed with Hawks was assumed by Warner Bros. and she became one of the busiest actresses on the lot, appearing with Bogart in four other movies. Her first assignment teamed her with Charles Boyer in Confidential Agent was a misbegotten pairing, but she redeemed herself in Hawks’ classic The Big Sleep, which at the time was not well received.  

Her next two movies with Bogart, Dark Passage and Key Largo, were minor hits, but from then on she was on her own.

She co-starred with Kirk Douglas (her fellow drama student at the American Academy) in Young Man with a Horn and Gary Cooper In Bright Leaf. But then, thanks to Olivia de Havilland’s landmark lawsuit, even though she made only seven movies for Warner Bros, her seven-year contract was over, and she signed a contract with 20th Century Fox where she made two Cinemascope all-star showcases, the first a blockbuster How to Marry a Millionaire in which she stole the movie from the emerging Marilyn Monroe, the second Women’s World, a serviceable vehicle but one that showed off her talents.

She was borrowed by MGM for The Cobweb possibly her best film without Bogart even though Richard Widmark had the more important role. Blood Alley with John Wayne was her inauspicious return to Warner Bros, while Written on the Wind (although a step down for her by virtue of working at Universal) is now considered a Douglas Sirk masterpiece.

Her career then took off suddenly when Grace Kelly decided to marry Prince Rainier and she inherited one of her best roles, playing a fashion designer opposite Gregory Peck in Designing Woman, a smart, sophisticated comedy directed by Vincente Minnelli, marred only by a silly slapstick ending, but one that pleased audiences, which made it a big box office hit. The script won a deserved Oscar for writer George Wells.

Around this time Bogie was dying and she seemed to grab anything she was offered including a lame remake of Sentimental Journey, The Gift of Love. Even more demeaning was North West Frontier, which she made for the Rank Organization. Obviously, without Bogie, she was lost.

She tried television with little success and was reduced to accepting supporting roles in interesting films, including Paul Newman’s Harper. 

Realizing she no longer was useful to Hollywood, she saw Broadway as a new challenge. Her first foray there was a huge success, Goodbye Charlie, although when Fox filmed it her part went to Debbie Reynolds. The same thing happened with Cactus Flower when later filmed by Columbia, and her part went to Ingrid Bergman.

But then turn about is fair play, and she achieved her greatest Broadway success in the musical version of All About Eve, retitled Applause.  Playing the Bette Davis role, she conquered the Big White Way, winning a Tony, which she followed with another musical version of a Hollywood movie, this time retaining its original title, Woman of the Year, for which she won another Tony.

Only when Sidney Lumet approached her about joining an all-star cast in Murder on the Orient Express did she return to film. But her only great role of this period was her comeback in Barbra Streisand’s The Mirror Has Two Faces, for which she won a deserved Golden Globe.

At her last HFPA press conference, she was still sultry and sassy. And of course brutally frank. When asked if she regretted taking a stand for liberal politics, she indignantly replied, “Why should I? I resent very much the idea that because you’re a Democrat you’re not supposed to voice your opinion. Nobody ever criticized a Republican actor. John Wayne was never criticized. Gary Cooper wasn’t criticized. Robert Taylor wasn’t criticized. They were all very right-wing. Nothing was ever said about them. But let one Democrat open his or her mouth and you’re told to shut up. So, in answer to your question, I think we have every right to speak and if we aren’t allowed to speak then we shouldn’t have to pay taxes.  A lot of us are very intelligent, thinking people. We work for a living, we live in this country, and we have a right to our opinion. I’m proud to call myself a liberal.”

What was it like being one of the great beauties of Hollywood’s Golden Age?

Again indignantly she replied, “I never was in the beautiful category. That’s something I cannot make people realize. I don’t know why. I never was. When men thought of great beauties and when you see great beauties now listed, my name is never there. I have never been in the category of beauty. Fabulous, yes, but beautiful, no.” To the end a tough cookie.

Her classic movies: the two she made with Bogie, To Have and Have Not and The Big Sleep.