Paul Greenberg

Lauren Bacall's death at 89 got front-page coverage complete with picture in the New York Times, and it deserved to. Like so many American images and voices in our vast celluloid memory bank, she may have been more familiar than famous -- if the definition of fame has something to do with greatness rather than just exposure. But familiar she definitely was, at least to the generation of American moviegoers who grew up with movies the way their grandchildren now grow up with the Internet.


Her husky voice still resonates somewhere in the back of old-timers' clogged grey matter. ("You know how to whistle, don't you, Steve? You just put your lips together and ... blow.") That line was almost her trademark and, like any well-known trademark, it became too familiar to stir real passion in real, messy life off the silver screen. The line may have been emblematic of her whole rise -- and decline -- as an American symbol. The once daring has a way of becoming only cliché. A celebrity she definitely was, but a great actress? If so, it was hard to see it inside the glossy cover.

There are stars and there are satellites, and even the finest moon shines with only a reflected light. And she was mainly Humphrey Bogart's reflection. He was the personification of the masculinity of his time, the Tough Guy, the hero despite himself, the man's man. What he had may be hard to put into words, but he had It -- whatever It may be. And she was only its female echo.

If you doubt that, think of how many roles Bogart starred in as Bogart -- not just noir gangster movies but classics like "Casablanca," "The Treasure of the Sierra Madre," "The African Queen" ... Bogart without Bacall is easy enough to envision, but Bacall without Bogart? Bless her for trying in her always calculated way, but some things can't be manufactured, only mined -- like many another natural resource.

Yes, there are remarkable, even inseparable twosomes in our visual memories -- Tracy and Hepburn, Myrna Loy and William Powell in the Thin Man movies, Abbott and Costello, Thelma and Louise, Jerry Lewis and Dean Martin in their heyday, Holmes and Watson, Astaire and Rogers ... name your own favorite. Mine may be Astaire and Rogers, and such couples needn't be equal to stay in the mind, only complementary.

It was said of Ginger Rogers back when Women's Lib was the phrase in vogue that she did everything Fred Astaire did -- only backwards and in high heels. But the comment is a little too flip, a little too politically correct. Else why, when watching them, no matter how much talent and just life force Ginger Rogers emits, all eyes stay on the elegant Astaire, who might as well be wearing top hat and tails for whatever stylized dance number he was doing at the time.


Paul Greenberg

Pulitzer Prize-winning Paul Greenberg, one of the most respected and honored commentators in America, is the editorial page editor of the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette.