She’s Got the Look: Top 10 Lauren Bacall Performances

Lauren Bacall would have been 90 this September. She died two weeks ago. There have been many tributes to her as one of the last icons of the Golden Age of Hollywood, to being Humphrey Bogart’s wife, to her signature whistle line, and to even the last living name mentioned among the celebrities in Madonna’s “Vogue,” but for me Bacall will always be a symbol of strength and dignity. Transforming her career from screen to stage in the late 60s through the 80s in such vehicles as Goodbye Charlie, Cactus Flower, Applause, and Woman of the Year, Bacall refused to be pigeonholed. She was a woman who spoke her own mind off and on the screen, and she learned to do it all alone, as she writes in her autobiography, By Myself.

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Below are, in my opinion, Bacall’s top ten performances. With a career spanning almost seven decades, she didn’t have the range of Bette Davis or Katharine Hepburn, or the pop culture effect of Marilyn Monroe or Audrey Hepburn, but Bacall had something in her own right—deep inner strength, personified on screen.

The Top 10 Lauren Bacall Performances:

10) Nora Temple in Key Largo (1948)

Her first time playing a widow on the screen—something she would protest in her personal life—Bacall gives a quiet, emotional performance amid the hamminess of Edward G. Robinson and the theatricality of Claire Trevor. This is a woman who’s not frightened by cheap thugs and won’t go down without fighting, as seen below when she spits in Robinson’s face.

9) Eleanor in Birth (2004)

Jonathan Glazer’s Birth, about a young boy who claims he’s the dead husband of a woman (Nicole Kidman) as she’s on the verge of marrying another man, received mixed reviews, but Bacall as Kidman’s mother, Eleanor, shows a firm resolve. Bacall and Kidman collaborated twice together in the early 2000s (here and in Lars von Trier’s Dogville), and they complement each other as mother and daughter. Bacall’s role is small, but she gives it her all. Watch the expression on her face as she listens to a voicemail left by the young boy for Kidman’s character.

8) Lucy Moore Hadley in Written on the Wind (1956)

I don’t think Bacall herself cared much for playing the “straight man” in Douglas Sirk’s melodrama, but she again gives a quiet grace to a role surrounded by loud performances (Robert Stack and Dorothy Malone). Husband Humphrey Bogart advised Bacall not to make another film “like that,” but I’m glad she was part of Sirk’s engaging melodrama.

7) Irene Jansen in Dark Passage (1947)

Delmer Daves’s noir drama wasn’t well-received at the time, and many audiences and critics found it too experimental to have the first half of the film seen only in Bogart’s eyes, but I think this is perhaps where Bacall is her loveliest as the young artist who refuses to believe Vincent Parry (Bogart) killed his wife. She offers him refuge from the police while he gets plastic surgery to hide himself. Daves offers many close-ups of Bacall’s face, letting us see an array of vivid emotions.

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6) Mrs. Hubbard in Murder on the Orient Express (1974)
On the surface, Mrs. Hubbard is nothing but a spoiled, rich bitchy widow who annoys everyone she comes into contact with, yet underneath it all, she’s a calculated character, watching and waiting on the sidelines to make her next move. Ingrid Bergman received a third Oscar in a supporting role as the timid Swedish missionary, yet I would’ve nominated Bacall instead, who had a much showier part for a change in the all-star cast of the Agatha Christie classic.

5) Hannah Morgan in The Mirror Has Two Faces (1996)

As Barbra Streisand’s overbearing, vain mother, Bacall gives what at first seems like a showy, loud performance, but later in the movie, we see a woman who realizes that her life is nearing its end and she may have settled. The scene below is why Bacall was nominated for an Oscar.

“It’s an awful thing to look back on your life and realize you’ve settled. The problem was I always felt like I had more time…inside I felt young, just like a kid, I have everything ahead of me…but I don’t. I guess I am jealous…parents don’t have a plan to hurt their children. I never wanted to hurt you.”

4) Marilla Brown Hagen in Designing Woman (1957)

It’s important to know the backstory of Vincente Minnelli’s small, yet charming battle of the sexes comedy. Bogart was dying of cancer when Bacall went off to work during the day, and it provided her with the only outlet to release any pent-up emotions and use them in her performance. As Marilla, Bacall is a successful, independent fashion designer who doesn’t need a man. She just happens to find one (Gregory Peck) and fall in love. It’s important to note that in this movie, as opposed to another one released a decade earlier (Hepburn and Tracy’s Woman of the Year), here we have a woman who does not automatically give up her career once she’s married. In fact, she doesn’t even give up her apartment. While she and Peck’s social circles don’t mix well (hers is full of theater people and his is full of sports writers), Bacall at no point in the movie designs to change parts of herself to suit the automatic needs of a man. Bacall’s outspoken, vibrant, and stylishly dressed character brings humor and self-reliance to what could on the surface be considered just another breezy comedy from the late ’50s.

3) Mrs. Vivian Rutledge in The Big Sleep (1946)

In her second pairing with Bogart for one of cinema’s classic film noirs in Raymond Chandler’s classic detective story, Bacall exudes confidence and charm, while at the same time refusing to give in to Marlowe’s demands. Let him sweat it out a little first. When we first see her on screen, she insults him, and the two have an irresistible repartee (the first of several throughout the film). Unlike her sister Carmen, who uses girlish sexuality to seduce men, Bacall’s Vivian is so self-assured, she doesn’t need to. She isn’t some girl, a pawn or plaything; she’s a grown woman.

2) Marie “Slim” Browning in To Have and Have Not (1944)

Bacall’s debut film and her first pairing with Bogart were the stuff of movie magic. While Howard Hawks had initially tried to mold her into playing the perfect woman—someone who could be as insolent as Bogart—Bacall didn’t rely on her director to completely design her character. Everything from her walk to the way she lit a cigarette to the signature “look” of hers is a calculated mood to fit the Slim persona. This is a girl who’s been out on her own and is a survivor, by any means necessary. And even if many people only remember her performance in this film because of her “whistle” line, her mere presence on screen left such a palpable and dynamic impact that Bacall refused to let us ever forget her.

1) Schatze Page in How to Marry A Millionaire (1953)

While many people would argue that Bacall’s debut performance is her best, I disagree. After her four pairings with Bogart and a series of flops (Confidential Agent, Bright Leaf, Young Man with a Horn), Bacall needed a comeback to remind audiences that she wasn’t just a one-hit wonder. She was here to stay. As Schatze Page, the worldly model, Bacall shows off an intelligent, yet jaded outlook on love and romance. Along with her two roommates (Marilyn Monroe and Betty Grable), she concocts a plan for the three of them to all live in a penthouse and find wealthy husbands. With a mixture of cynicism, beauty, and wit, Bacall totally owns the character. While only in her mid-twenties, she looks much older than she did at nineteen in To Have and Have Not. She’s had her string of disappointments and it shows on her face, but that’s what makes it such a vivid and deeply human performance. She refuses to give in to the standard patriarchal idea of matrimony and goes ahead forming her own ideas about how to make her life happy.

Bacall’s career in films may have stalled from time to time, relegating her to mostly supporting or character parts, but she always came to each role with a fully formed idea of her character. I’m reminded of The New Yorker’s Richard Brody, who summed up Bacall’s career as such: “She was meant to play Presidents and C.E.O.s, editors-in-chief and visionary directors. How many such roles existed for actresses—for women in real life—in her heyday? Bacall was bigger than her career.”

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