From desperate housewife to Broadway diva to cartoon witch, the screen legend’s roles were varied and memorable
With each passing year, we lose more of the few remaining screen legends who were key players during the golden age of Hollywood, and the passing of Lauren Bacall this week at the age of 89 feels like the closing of a chapter on a specific style of grace and beauty.
From teen model to sizzling ingénue to seasoned player to Broadway star to living legend, Bacall reinvented herself throughout her career, leaving us with a treasure trove of singular performances.
Her obituaries will sing the praises of “The Big Sleep,” “Key Largo,” and her Oscar-nominated turn in “The Mirror Has Two Faces,” but her filmography has a wealth of lesser-known work that boosted her star power:
1. “Sex and the Single Girl” (1964)
A seriously silly farce based on Helen Gurley Brown’s non-fiction best-seller gave Bacall the opportunity to play the dissatisfied wife of Henry Fonda’s hosiery magnate. Alternately strident, kittenish, supportive and enraged, Bacall finds the laughs in the fluffy material. Highlight: her “romantic” dance with Fonda, which turns out to be, as the camera pulls back, the two of them doing the frug several feet apart.
2. “Applause” (1973)
Bacall’s singing voice was famously dubbed by a young Andy Williams in “To Have and Have Not,” but she went on to become a later-in-life Broadway star in musicals like “Woman of the Year” and this tuneful adaptation of “All About Eve,” pitting Bacall’s Margo Channing against opportunistic newcomer Eve Harrington, played by Penny Fuller. This TV version of the stage show has never made it to home video, but the entire production can be seen on YouTube.
3. “Written on the Wind” (1956)
Dorothy Malone’s Oscar-winning supporting performance gets the spotlight here, but Bacall’s role is equally challenging, holding the audience’s empathy as her character drives a wedge between two lifelong friends: Robert Stack’s rich, alcoholic oilman Kyle, who marries her; and Rock Hudson’s soft-spoken, self-made man Mitch, who can’t hide his feelings for her. Director Douglas Sirk rides a fine line between stylized and soapy, and Bacall strikes just the right balance.
4. “Young Man with a Horn” (1950)
The film is unkind to Bacall’s lesbian character – it was 1950, after all – but she imbues her with backbone and dignity, even when it’s clear that she’s the villain of the piece. Slinking around like a sexy, couture-swathed spider woman and bringing misery to the talented jazz prodigy played by Kirk Douglas, Bacall’s Amy is nobody’s fool even if she’s also no man’s ideal wife.
5. “Howl’s Moving Castle” (2004)
Bacall continued taking interesting gigs well into her 80s, from a cameo as herself on “The Sopranos” (she is viciously mugged for a gift basket by Christopher Moltisanti) to working with the legendarily prickly Lars von Trier on “Dogville” and “Manderlay.” It was toward the end of her life that she also found success as a voice artist for animation, ranging from the sublime (“Ernest and Celestine”) to the ridiculous (“Family Guy”). One of her best cartoon gigs came in this Miyazaki tale, in which she plays a diabolical witch who casts a spell that turns the young heroine into an old lady. We saw Bacall follow a similar path on-screen, and she kept us captivated every step of the way.