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A different world, a different kind of star

Posted: 08/23/2014 1:00 AM | Comments: 0


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Lauren Bacall, who died Aug. 12 at age 89, was known for "the look," a sultry up-and-under glance that was one part "come hither" and one part "get lost, chump."

Bacall was a cool contradiction. She made her astonishing screen debut very young -- in 1944's To Have and Have Not -- but she was never an ingenue. Later on, in the 1960s and '70s, she could be a regal lady but also one hell of a tough broad.

Bacall's most fascinating contradiction, however, was her complex sexual allure, which derived from a mysterious amalgam of heat and chilly hauteur. Whether she was trading erotic barbs with Humphrey Bogart or biting Gregory Peck's ear, Bacall remained a little aloof, a little apart.

Many of Bacall's obituaries described her as the last star of Hollywood's Golden Age. It wasn't just her film work that qualified her for this status, but the way she embodied a certain kind of untouchable glamour, a quality that has been lost in our era of accessibility, over-exposure and no-makeup selfies.

Bacall was beautiful, of course, with the pared-down, angular bone structure suited to the highlights and shadows of black-and-white film. She started as a fashion model and was reportedly discovered by the wife of director Howard Hawks, who had seen the young Bacall on the cover of Harper's Bazaar.

But Hollywood, then and now, eats up and spits out pretty people every day. It wasn't just Bacall's beauty. It was how she handled it, with knowing self-awareness and also a smidge of ironic self-deprecation. Although Bacall was supremely assured, she often seemed to be indicating, with one elegantly arched brow, her slight surprise at being where she was. "Stardom isn't a profession," Bacall once said. "It's an accident."

Bacall's iconic but unusual beauty also expressed a tremendous force of character. Strong-willed, independent and choosy about her parts, she was suspended several times by Warner Bros. for refusing roles, back when the studios could discipline their actors like naughty children.

But if the studio system made Bacall chafe, its controlled and careful gate-keeping also made her a certain kind of star.

It was a time when actors maintained an Olympian distance from their fans. They weren't concerned with being "relatable." They didn't bare their childhood traumas to Barbara Walters in tell-all TV interviews or open their homes to magazines to prove they were juggling work and motherhood, just like any middle-class gal.

They didn't tweet pictures of their butts like Kim Kardashian or court outrage with attention-getting stunts like Miley Cyrus. They weren't dealing with the uncontrollable and insatiable cravings of the Internet gossip industry, or the 24/7 photo surveillance that zeroes in on baby bumps, bad plastic surgery and celebrity cellulite.

It was a different world, and Bacall was a different kind of star.

You can see that stardom in her very first role. From the moment she appears on screen in To Have and Have Not, Bacall has Bogart hitching up his pants and paying attention, along with every single person in the audience. With the benefit of hindsight, you can actually watch Bogie's third marriage disintegrating right in front of you. He and Bacall would begin a relationship a few weeks later and be married in 1945.

Bacall seems impossibly worldly and sophisticated, in her smart skirt suit and hose, but she was all of 19 at the time. (You know, about the same age as Miley when she started stripping down, grabbing her crotch and licking things.)

In How to Marry a Millionaire, a piffling 1953 romantic comedy, Bacall leads a trio of gals -- the other two are Betty Grable and a young and adorably bunny-brained Marilyn Monroe -- in a scheme to bag rich husbands. Nothing "under six figures" Bacall sternly tells the other women, who are prone to backsliding.

On paper, this kind of flagrant gold-digging might look unsavoury, but Bacall, by sheer force of personality, somehow makes it seem sensible, pragmatic, even classy. "I guess she's the most intelligent person I ever met," Grable says admiringly at one point. And she's on to something: Bacall was always fiercely smart, even in silly movies.

In fact, Bacall was a bad-ass feminist at a time when that word wasn't much used, especially in Hollywood. Despite straitened scripts and the studio system's systematic grooming -- vocal coaches were brought in to develop the low, throaty delivery that became a trademark -- Bacall was always her own woman. She might have played va-va-voom sex symbols, in movies like The Big Sleep and Designing Woman, but she also subverted conventional expectations. Her characters were frank, no-nonsense, self-possessed women, and she gave a sharp, challenging edge to even her most seductive scenes.

Bacall's charisma made a memorable 2006 appearance in The Sopranos. Sometimes, these late-career cameos can feel a bit sad, like desperate bids for relevance. But Bacall's walk-on turn as her own cantankerous self is fittingly fabulous. In the episode Luxury Lounge, Christopher Moltisanti (Michael Imperioli), in Los Angeles to pitch his comically moronic movie project, tries to rip off Bacall's celebrity gift basket. This octogenarian lady turns out to be considerably tougher than the average New Jersey wiseguy, however, hanging on to her swag, getting socked in the face and cursing like a sailor on shore leave. Symbolically, that sucker punch represented the glamour of Old Hollywood getting decked by the vulgarity of New Hollywood. At the same time, Bacall's performance, with its imperious scene-stealing, self-mocking humour and up-for-anything spirit, proved her Golden Age star power was undimmed.

And it still is, so long as we have Miss Bacall's films.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition August 23, 2014 D12

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