Born Betty Joan Perske, the daughter of Jewish parents in the Bronx, Lauren Bacall would soon became the epitome of New York cool. She was the slim, caustic partner of Humphrey Bogart, whom she married at the age of twenty and starred with in such films as “To Have and Have Not,” “Dark Passage,” “Key Largo,” and “The Big Sleep,” also known as the best film ever written. Later on, she would reinvent herself as an icon of both camp culture and posh society, putting her husky, singing voice to good use and making appearances in star-studded features of the Agatha Christie variety. She was also, incidentally, the first cousin of Shimon Peres. But right now, as we celebrate the career of Bacall, who has died at the age of 89, we’re less interested in exploring Bacall’s family connections than we are in paying tribute to the characters she played on screen and stage. There were plenty of highlights and lowlights (Barbra Streisand’s 1996 “The Mirror Has Two Faces” actually contained some of each). But these moments, in our completely biased opinion, were among her most memorable:
1) The Big Sleep
“I Was Beginning To Think You Worked in Bed Like Marcel Proust”
In the 1940’s, when Humphrey Bogart’s career was at its apex, there were few actors who could come close to holding the screen with him. Bacall proved the rare exception, sparring with him, and usually coming out far ahead. Check out the dialogue in the Howard Hawks adaptation of Raymond Chandler’s noir classic, co-scripted by William Faulkner with Bacall playing the role of Mrs. Vivian Rutledge.
Bacall’s singing voice was, at least two these ears, something of an acquired taste. In fact, a rumor (false) was spread around that in her earliest screen appearance in “To Have and Have Not,” her performances of Hoagy Carmichael songs were actually dubbed by Andy Wiliams. Bacall’s performance in “Applause” won her a Tony Award, and it’s a remarkably, uh, pungent time capsule.
3) To Have and Have Not
“Was You Ever Bit By a Dead Bee?”
If there ever was a more memorable film debut by an actor, I can’t think of it. She’s most known for her moments with Bogart in Howard Hawks’s very loose adaptation of Ernest Hemingway’s novel, and rightly so, but she displays a wonderful empathy too when she acts alongside Walter Brennan, here playing one of his signature alcoholics.
4) Bernstein at 70
It would be hard to imagine anyone having a better time watching this performance than Leonard Bernstein did, here celebrating his 70th birthday. But this parody of an Ira Gershwin-Kurt Weill number with new lyrics by Stephen Sondheim is exquisite viewing nonetheless.
5) Murder on the Orient Express
“So there’s a man in my room”
At the height of big budget extravagance and delightfully tacky star-studded murder mysteries, Lauren Bacall’s performance as Mrs. Hubbard, perhaps more than any other film, demonstrated her graceful transition from smart-mouthed youngster to dignified stateswoman. The movie — despite its terrific cast and fine director (Sidney Lumet) — is pretty ridiculous, especially [spoiler alert] the ending. Still it’s worth a look for the performances of Ingrid Bergman, Sir John Gielgud, and of course, Lauren Bacall.
6) The Big Sleep
“Speaking of horses, I like to play them myself.”
Impossible to limit ourselves to just one scene in this film. This is probably one of the most suggestive conversations ever committed to film, yet featuring not a single inappropriate word. Totally safe for work (and yet totally not).
7) To Have and Have Not
I don’t know if there’s anything one can say about this scene that hasn’t been said before. One of the most famous moments in movie history, and the one that made Bacall a star.
Adam Langer is the Forward’s senior editor for culture and features. Born and raised in Chicago, he is the author of the novels “Crossing California,” “The Washington Story,” “Ellington Boulevard,” “The Thieves of Manhattan” and “The Salinger Contract” as well as the memoir “My Father’s Bonus March.” His forthcoming novel “Cyclorama” will be published in 2022.
Lauren Bacall's 7 Greatest Moments