sat 13/04/2024

Lauren Bacall: 'Just put your lips together and blow' | reviews, news & interviews

Lauren Bacall: 'Just put your lips together and blow'

Lauren Bacall: 'Just put your lips together and blow'

The screen made her, but she would become a stage tigress, not least when she sang

Lauren Bacall: every inch a star

Lauren Bacall, who has died at the age of 89, was an iconic figure on screen. She spoke one of the immortal lines in film history when all but exhaling the remark, “You just put your lips together and blow” in Howard Hawks’s To Have and Have Not. But away from the screen and from such husbands as Humphrey Bogart and Jason Robards, Bacall shone just as brightly on stage, a medium that made plain a quality hinted at by her work in movies.

She may not have been the greatest actress ever – far from it: you wouldn’t peruse her CV for reappraisals of Shakespeare and Chekhov. But in her element, she was every inch a star – not least when she was playing one.

That much was abundantly clear from Applause in 1970, the show that offered up the first of Bacall’s two Tony-winning performances. A stage adaptation of the film All About Eve, the musical (subsequently seen on the West End with Bacall in tow) offered up Bacall as the ageing theatre star Margo Channing growling her way with panache through a Charles Strouse/Lee Adams score that remains celebrated to this day for its first-act finale, “Welcome to the Theatre”: a solo number for its singularly-voiced leading lady. This clip from the musical's gay bar scene remains a camp classic of sorts.

Eleven years late  Bacall won a second Tony in the first show I ever saw her in on stage – the John Kander/Fred Ebb-scored Woman of the Year, adapted (and updated) from the 1942 Spencer Tracy/Katharine Hepburn film and with Bacall as a TV personality called Tess Harding who stopped the show nightly leading the ensemble number “One of the Boys”. She and fellow Tony-winner Marilyn Cooper had an audience-pleasing comic second-act duet, “The Grass Is Always Greener”, in which Bacall happily ceded the spotlight to her diminutive colleague in a way that Raquel Welch, who succeeded Bacall in the role, couldn’t quite bring herself to do. Grande dame that she was to the last, Bacall could nonetheless find it within herself to be gracious.

Bacall’s musical prowess was marginally surprising given that the actress was no singer, but she knew a thing or two about style and delivery and the sorts of instincts they don’t teach in drama school. Her non-musical work included, in London, a Harold Pinter-directed revival at the Haymarket in 1985 of Tennessee Williams’s Sweet Bird of Youth: a fascinating experience to behold in that Bacall to a large extent was the role of an ageing screen siren without necessarily being able to act the role. In 1995, she made her Chichester debut as the vengeful multi-millionairess in Dürrenmatt’s The Visit, directed by Terry Hands, but the reviews were iffy and the production never moved on from Sussex.

I last saw Bacall on stage in 1999 in a rare Broadway sighting of Waiting in the Wings, Noël Coward’s play set in a residential home for retired actresses. Bacall played the improbably named Lotta Bainbridge but was eclipsed in acting terms by her Tony-nominated co-star, Rosemary Harris, and it was clear that her once-unstoppable energy had begun to flag. (There were reports, as well, of Bacall-generated friction backstage.) But following on from the recent death – also at age 89 – of Elaine Stritch, Bacall’s passing further depletes the ranks of a mighty generation of women at home on stage and screen. Here’s to you, Betty Joan Perske (the actress’s real name). New York City - where Bacall was born and where she lived to the last - is today that little bit more diminished by your absence.

Grande dame that she was to the last, Bacall could nonetheless find it within herself to be gracious

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