To celebrate Women’s History Month, we’re opening up our archives to share interesting profiles of interesting women — as reported by some of our most interesting women writers. To follow more in the series, explore the #womenbywomen on Twitter, and share your own picks using the hashtag.
Lauren Bacall Undiluted: A screen dynamo on her legendary life
By Stephanie Mansfield
Washington Post Staff Writer
Aug. 6, 1988
The voice sounds like someone trying to wax ‘n’ buff a gravel pit.
“You DO want some iced coffee.”
And when you’re with Lauren Bacall, you DO know how to drink iced coffee. You just put your lips together and sip.
“Disgusting,” she says, peeling off the top of one of those paper packets of sugar substitute. You get the distinct feeling that Bacall — star, legend, grape juice spokeswoman, once known as Baby but now simply Betty — abhors anything phony and sweet.
Smart, brittle, funny and good-hearted, she is not what you might call a warm person, but if you sip quietly and seem to impart enough sympathetic knowledge about the rigors of filmmaking and the tilt-a-whirl nature of the entertainment industry, she can be downright amiable for an hour, talking about movies, men, sex, her children and, of course, Bogie.
She will be 64 in September and has just finished her 20th film, “Mr. North,” which opened yesterday in Washington. It was her lifelong friend John Huston’s last project, and was directed by Huston’s son Danny. Bacall appears as Amelia Cranston, maid turned proprietor of a boardinghouse for servants.
“It’s a charming story,” Bacall says, stretched out on a chair in the library of her Manhattan apartment, which is brimming with memorabilia, framed photographs, books, paintings, antique rugs and worn, comfort-able furniture. (“I have things in my apartment that are older than you are, that’s all I can tell you,” she says.) She wears a yellow cotton sweater and khaki pants and sensible leather shoes and her hair flies off toward Central Park in wispy strands and she is makeup-free. The stunning good looks of her youth have sharpened into an enduring handsomeness, but that’s not to say she’s unfeminine: She is still sexy in her own throaty, feline way, sprinkling her comments with four-letter words and erupting every so often in a laugh that might be described as a “baby, I’ve seen it all” kind of cackle.
She hasn’t seen “Mr. North” yet. She’s heard mixed reviews. “I’m terrified to think what I look like,” she says.
The film is a small, PBS-like rendering of Thornton Wilder’s “Theophilus North,” set in Newport, R.I., in 1926. North, a young man with a strange gift for causing static electricity, is mistaken for a faith healer as he turns the town upside down with his magical powers. A period piece, it looks to have been shot through white linen.
“I wish it were shot through black linen,” cracks Bacall, erupting in a belly laugh. “What’s so great about it, you see, is that you say ‘linen’ and that places the period, doesn’t it? That’s really what it should have been.”
She sits back, quietly. “I did it for John, you see. That was my connection.”
John Huston, a lifelong friend who delivered the eulogy at Humphrey Bogart’s funeral, had directed Bogart and Bacall in “Key Largo.” The year before Huston died, he and his son Danny watched the Academy Awards and saw Bacall.
“We thought she’d be a perfect Cranston,” Danny Huston recalls. They called the actress, who said she was leaving for Egypt to do another film, but would read the script on the flight. She got to Egypt and called the Hustons, saying she’d do it. “She’s a star of the first caliber, a diva,” says Danny Huston. “Having somebody like Bacall read dialogue is incredible.”
Executive producer and co-screen writer John Huston, who because of ill health was replaced as the elderly James McHenry Bosworth by Robert Mitchum shortly before shooting began, died midway through the project.
“He was,” Bacall says, eyes tearing up, “of gigantic, giant proportions in his behavior and conduct. Really impressive. I think he was probably the only genius I’ve ever worked with.
“I was really happy I did it,” she continues. “I was happy to be able to spend time with John and Anjelica [Huston’s daughter, who has a cameo role in the film] and Danny. I’ve known Anjelica for years and I’m crazy about her. And Danny is wonderful. He’s a very self-assured young man, you know. He’s a charmer. A real charmer.”
Bacall says the young director, who had only one television movie to his credit, was burdened with “lack of experience and panic and worry over his father, every day not knowing whether John was going to live or die in the hospital, trying to direct, learning to direct … There was a lot on his plate. I do hope he gets a break, because to be in that shadow is not easy.”
At the mention of Robert Mitchum, Bacall leans back, smiling. “I love Mitchum. I have always thought he was a wonderful actor. I have known him for 35 years. I was supposed to work with him once, and it was totally screwed up. He got into a brouhaha with Duke Wayne’s company and we never worked together, which I was sorry about. His behavior on this film was fantastic. More than once I saw him called early and sitting for five hours, you know, that happens very often on location. Mitchum never said a word. So classy.”
And how did La Bacall, the diva, the legend, behave?
“Well,” she rolls her eyes in mock innocence. “I behaved … I have a reputation for being difficult and I suppose in a way I’m like Streisand in that I’m a perfectionist. If that’s difficult, then I’m difficult.”
She leans forward. “I don’t have scenes. I don’t have fights with directors. My difficulty must be perceived by other people because of my personality. I’m very demanding of myself, as far as work goes.”
The phone rings. Bacall rises, chats for a minute or two. Something about a check for Planned Parenthood and whether it’s deductible.
She returns. A question is posed. Why is she still working?
“Why?” she gasps. “All right, now let me ask you a question. Why did you ask me why? You’re not talking about a level, you’re talking about age. And that’s the problem with this [expletive] country. Categories. The minute you reach an age, you’re supposed to disappear. It drives me insane. I really hate it a lot when people say to me, ‘Are you still working?’ Am I still walking? Breathing? Who decided that you’re supposed to stop at a certain point? Number one, I hope I have a contribution to make, and number two, I’ve worked all my life. Why would I stop now? What else would I do?”
She leans back, and sighs. “What would I do?” she says quietly. “I’m not a social butterfly. I’m not someone who just wants to aimlessly travel or aimlessly do anything. I have to have a point of view. I have to have a place of my own. I don’t think when you start out, you think of longevity. You think in terms of now. I’ll tell you something, I’m still thinking in terms of now and I’m still thinking in terms of tomorrow and the day after. Just as there is no such thing as being a little bit pregnant or a little bit dead, if you’re an actress, you have to do it. Be part of it. Also, I have nobody to support me. Nobody pays my bills.”
She smiles. “I’m a product of a working mother and no father and my mother worked. I was brought up to work, to believe in work, thank God. I brought my children up to believe in work. Now, it was a little hard for them to believe in work when they were living in a house with a swimming pool, a maid and butler, but they understood about work.”
Bacall has a son and a daughter by her marriage to Bogart and a son by her marriage to actor Jason Robards. (Sam Robards, 27, is the only one to follow his parents into the business; he recently completed filming “Casualties of War” with Sean Penn and Michael J. Fox and will be seen this fall in the CBS series “TV 101.”)
“I believe in work. I believe in using yourself and I believe in independence,” says Bacall.
Does she believe in relationships?
“Totally, but I also recognize the almost impossibility of having them. Because one does not meet people who are capable of relationships.” She used to fall in love easily, and her partners have included a number of actors, including Frank Sinatra. “I have for years talked myself into things, to fill a void, you know? Then, about five years ago, I said, ‘What are you knocking your brains out for, for these jerks?’ And so, as a result, I don’t think about it. If some wonderful guy comes along, terrific. But otherwise, I really want a relationship with somebody who’s got something up there.” She taps the side of her cranium. “I don’t want only a crotch relationship.”
And yes, she agrees, unfortunately we’re still attracted to the same kind of guys we liked in high school. Trouble.
“I think we are. You learn from your mistakes and I think you keep making them. You’re looking at someone who keeps making them … Most men are so unsure of themselves and so infantile that the only way they can deal with anything is to hit and run. They have no staying power. They cannot maintain any kind of relationship.”
Still, guys who are trouble “are more interesting. The others are bores. If there’s no complexity in a person, it’s the wall, isn’t it? It’s a white wall.”
She married the thrice-divorced Bogart in 1945. Bacall was 20. He was 45. It lasted 12 years until his death in 1957.
“I was married to a man — I talk about Bogie only because he was a real husband and Jason really was not — Bogie was a very complicated, fascinating man. Trouble for a 19-year-old kid because I didn’t know anything, but totally solid and totally dependable. Character just oozed out of his pores.”
And whom does she find sexy now?
“Gorbachev,” she says flatly. “I think he’s really attractive. He has a real attitude. He knows who he is, he knows what he wants. I think he’s very sexy. I love smart, you see.”
“Without laughing, forget it.”
She takes a sip of coffee. “I was able in my relationship with Bogie … I laughed much more than with Jason, who almost never laughed,” she says, guffawing.
Baryshnikov “is sexy,” she continues. “Robert Redford is sexy, because he’s so elusive. I’ve always thought he was terribly, terribly attractive. I’ve known him for many years and I don’t see him at all, but I always thought he really has a kind of personal magnetism, but he also is weird. He disappears, he’s a loner and all that. He may not be interesting; I don’t know him well enough.”
Bacall says she hasn’t measured her men against Bogie’s ghost. “They say nobody can ever live up to that, but I have not spent my life making comparisons, either.”
For some, the one great love comes late in life. For Bacall,it came almost too soon. “My problem is, I had it early. And you have to live the rest of your life alone.”
For the last several years, she has immersed herself in work, writing a bestselling memoir (“Lauren Bacall, by Myself”), doing theater and movies. “I’ve had more opportunities and more variety on the stage.”
Not to mention more peer recognition with “Applause,” “Woman of the Year” and a Tony Award …
“Two Tonys,” she corrects. “Although I don’t believe in those damn awards. Acting is not competitive.”
In the future, however, she has decided she’ll stick with films.
“I’ve been in the theater too much and I had to stop the routine of six days a week, eight shows a week, it was really getting to me … I was fed up with it. I had no life. You can’t have a life in theater.”
She enjoys summers at her house in the Hamptons. She has also recently changed agents, and is talking to her editor at Knopf about writing another book. Two years ago she quit smoking. “I’ve been a fat woman ever since. I gained 20 pounds and I can’t lose it.”
She ushers her guest to the door.
“My aim is to keep working, traveling, doing, living. In spite of the categories, in spite of ‘Are you still working? Well, I would have thought you would have retired by now.'”
“Would you be happier if you saw me with a walker?” Then, with a great flourish: “Pisses me off.”