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.
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.
Bacall tried to keep up with Bogie, but she had to know she was the warm-up act, not the main event, and there were times when she clearly resented it. "I think I've damned well earned the right to be judged on my own," she once said, but wouldn't have had to say it if it were true. Hers was a derivative fame despite her claim to being a star in her own right
Even that trademark pose of hers, the downcast look, the soft purr, the seductive layer of toughness, she owed to one of her first scenes with Bogart: "My hand was shaking, my head was shaking, the cigarette was shaking, I was mortified. The harder I tried to stop, the more I shook. ... I realized that one way to hold my trembling head still was to keep it down, chin low, almost to my chest, and eyes up at Bogart. It worked and turned out to be the beginning of The Look." Her naturally low voice didn't hurt, either. It was effective, but you wouldn't confuse it with natural, while Bogart was ... Bogart.
Ah, yes, The Look. It didn't have to be spelled out, as in this more explicit age. It was a subtler and therefore sexier era. You might as well compare Rosemary Clooney's voice with Mick Jagger's barbaric yawp. Walt Whitman ("I sound my barbaric yawp over the rooftops of the world") would have loved it -- right up to moment he actually had to listen to it.
Hard-boiled New Yorker or not, Lauren Bacall remained Betty Perske, the nice if always aspiring middle-class Jewish girl from New York. They had their political differences, Bogart and Bacall, but it made no difference. It only added another fillip to their romance, and its intensity. She was Madly for Adlai back in the cool Fifties while he, an older man, retained his conservative instincts. No matter. Love is what matters.
Tough but tender, and utterly devoted to him, she would see the stoical Bogart through his last, terminal bout with cancer. He would die at 57. And she would go on, a still familiar figure, contented, maybe, a proud mother of three, involved with her four grandchildren, still working now and then, but ... never as happy as she was with Bogart.