Her friends, it seemed, called her Betty. I believe this to be the case because I once saw Lauren Bacall make an appearance on The Tonight Show back when Johnny Carson, the only host of that program who truly mattered, presided over it. He kept calling her “Betty,” always with a level of purely smitten appreciation that I rarely saw in the preternaturally composed entertainer. It wasn’t hard to figure out why this upstanding Midwestern gentleman might find himself a little bit swoony in the presence of her. She was decades past her debut as a willowy ingenue in the Howard Hawks wartime romantic drama To Have and Have Not, instructing Humphrey Bogart on the fine art of whistling and shimmying across the screen like a bombshell from a better planet. Still, she had a casual, almost automatic glamor, a command of everything in her vicinity, maybe even the air itself. There was the throaty, cigarette-scarred laugh and the piercing, amused stare that implied she was figure out exactly which little mouse before her was most tantalizing to toy with. Who wouldn’t beam back in helpless response?
Betty Joan Perske of the Bronx went to Hollywood and became Lauren Bacall, immediately embodying the sultry allure of the name. As much as Cary Grant or Marilyn Monroe, she seemed to rise to her new moniker, finding the hidden promise nestled within it to become the movie star that was needed in the time. She was a broad and a dame, practically shaped into being by the magic of Hollywood, as if the perfect femme fatale was needed for polished film noir offerings. She was startlingly gorgeous, but edged with a touch of danger, of uncertainty. She clearly wasn’t meant to be a damsel in distress. With the arch of eyebrow, she could intimidate every brute in the joint. It’s a given that her best performances were opposite Bogart: To Have and Have Not, The Big Sleep, Dark Passage, Key Largo. Apart from the man she married (and who, by all accounts, she loved deeply), Bacall could come across as a little indifferent. After his death, in 1957, she had long stretches when she didn’t work in film at all. In some of those gaps she wrote, publishing three memoirs, or acting on the stage to great acclaim, winning two Tony Awards. She wasn’t prolific, but that seemed a matter of her choosing. If someone wanted to work with Bacall, they had damn well better be sure it worth her time.
Whenever she was on a screen, big or small, Bacall emanated class. Toughness, smarts, confidence and poise were all present, but above all was class. This was true in challenging works and in throwaway fare. She was one of the last ties to an earlier era of American movies, one that prized that quality, perhaps more than any other. She was there at the right time, in the right place, and, with the right tweaking, even the right name. Even so, I still like to think of her as Betty. Maybe that’s because it makes me feel a little closer to the kind of classic cinema splendor and beauty that’s fading like old celluloid. Maybe it simply makes me feel closer to the intriguing figure she cut. Either way, it makes the unattainable a little more tenderly real.