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Silver-screen legend had sultry gaze, throaty voice

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Lauren Bacall, a bewitching actress whose husky voice and smouldering onscreen chemistry with her husband Humphrey Bogart made her a defining movie star of the 1940s and who decades later won Tony Awards in the Broadway musicals Applause and Woman of the Year, died Tuesday in New York. She was 89.

Robbert de Klerk, co-managing partner of the Humphrey Bogart Estate, confirmed the death in an email.

Bacall was one of the last surviving major stars of the studio system, which flourished from the silent-movie era to the dawn of the television age. She was a willowy, ash-blond fashion model when veteran film director Howard Hawks plucked her from the pages of Harper's Bazaar in 1943 and moulded her seductive screen persona.

Hawks gave Bacall, then 19, an electrifying film debut: as a sexy and insolent woman of mystery in To Have and Have Not (1944), based on an Ernest Hemingway story and set in the Caribbean during the Second World War. The movie shaped her public identity: a woman as sexually confident as she was formidable, or in Bogart's words, "steel with curves."

In the film's best-remembered scene, Bacall sidles up to Bogart, who plays a hard-boiled charter boat captain named Steve. She kisses him, then says, "It's even better when you help."

As she prepares to leave his hotel room, she tells him, "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. Oh, maybe just whistle. You know how to whistle, don't you, Steve? You just put your lips together and blow."

Bogart, more than twice her age and looking it, wore an expression of someone who could not believe his luck. Here was someone whose cocksure impertinence matched his -- and she could sing, to boot, rendering How Little We Know to Hoagy Carmichael's piano. Bogart divorced his third wife and married Bacall after filming.

"The notion that Bogart was falling for her is intoxicating," said film historian David Thomson. "We used to go to the movies to fall in love with these strange people, and the fact that they might fall in love with each other is magic plus. This is the best instance of that happening in front of the camera."

The sexual undercurrent was repeated in The Big Sleep (1946), with Bogart as Raymond Chandler's fictional private detective Philip Marlowe and Bacall as a resourceful divorcee. She went on to act opposite some of the top leading men of her day, including Kirk Douglas (Young Man with a Horn), Gary Cooper (Bright Leaf), John Wayne (Blood Alley) and Gregory Peck (Designing Woman), but the films were inconsistent in quality.

If Bacall never again matched the sultry intensity of her early promise, she became a disciplined Broadway performer and dazzled a series of powerful men in arts and politics.

After Bogart died in 1957, she was engaged to Frank Sinatra and had a turbulent marriage to actor Jason Robards Jr. She was a longtime resident of the Dakota apartments in New York, but her social life extended far beyond the city. She was a presence in the Hollywood film community and Washington stages and salons.

Attracted to liberal politics, Bacall grew close to a series of Democratic leaders, including President Harry Truman (who once serenaded her with the piano), Robert F. Kennedy and Adlai Stevenson II. In 1947, she flew with Bogart to Washington as part of a group of actors and directors protesting the House Un-American Activities Committee and its investigation into alleged communist subversion in Hollywood.

Onscreen, Bacall matured into character parts that culminated in her Oscar nomination in a supporting role as Barbra Streisand's hopelessly narcissistic mother in The Mirror Has Two Faces (1996). She received an honorary Academy Award in 2009 that celebrated "her central place in the Golden Age of motion pictures."

Bacall was born Betty Joan Perske on Sept. 16, 1924, into a middle-class Jewish family in New York City. She was a child when her father abandoned the family. She grew up with her mother, who took the surname Bacal. Betty later added the extra "L" and paired it with the screen name Lauren at director Hawks' behest.

She had modest training as an actress, but her stunning looks led to a modelling career and an appearance on the cover of Harper's Bazaar in March 1943.

Captivated by Bacall's photogenic face, Hawks put her under a seven-year contract, trained her in techniques of movie acting and waited for the right material to introduce her to audiences.

In her 1978 National Book Award-winning memoir, By Myself, she wrote she had little experience with men when she first met Bogart. She did not find him particularly attractive at first and was a bit scared. He was married at the time to his third wife, actress Mayo Methot.

 

-- Washington Post

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition August 13, 2014 A11

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