Saturday, February 7, 2015

Men, Booze, and Cigarettes: The Autobiography of Lauren Bacall

One of the great memoirs, about the loves and wisdom of a dramatic life.

You wouldn't expect an outstanding memoir from a Hollywood starlet who took the nation by storm (giving it "the look"), snatched Humphrey Bogart from his third wife, and went on to an outstanding, if patchy, career in film and theater. But there it is. Bacall (originally Betty Bacal) was raised in very modest circumstances, in a solid New York (Bronx) Jewish familiy, but with the significant void of a father who left (was thrown out, really) very early in her life, between five and eight years old. Just old enough to remember him, but not old enough to understand why. She spent much of her life looking for father figures, with mixed success.

Bacall writes with incredible immediacy. Her heart is right there on the page, as she is smitten with movie stars in her childhood, has a gushing personal encounter with the surprisingly kind Betty White, and pursues acting relentlessly in her teens. But money is very tight, and she has to do modelling on the side. The big break comes with a cover in Harper's Bazaar, under the genius Diana Vreeland.

This cover led to several offers from far-off Hollywood, and just like that, Bacall was on the train and in the expert hands of Howard Hawkes. He was understandably pleased with what he saw, and cast Bacall in her first film, To Have and Have Not. Not only did Bacall turn out to have the looks, she also had the voice, the humor, and the acting skill to rise to the occasion (singing would always be a problem, though). While Bacall was in quite a different place when she wrote all this in the mid-seventies, she is obviously reliving this special time with acute memory and a unique dramatic sense, as she was smitten by co-star Humphrey Bogart who was, yes, old enough to be her father.

It turns out to be one of the love affairs of the century. Bogart was not just a character, but truly had character. They treated each other with great respect, and she describes a largely idylic life. He was a bit of a drinker when they met, having been beaten down by several bad marriages, especially his third, but drinks less as time goes on, now having children and his all-important sailboat to live for. Bacall's highest praise, in retrospect after future failures in love, was that she was married to a mature man. Unlike all the others.

But like all biography, the story of Humphrey Bogart ends tragically in his mid-fifties, from cancer clearly brought on by drinking and smoking. Within a year he wastes away to practically nothing, and Bacall writes so movingly of his illness and death that it is heartbreaking to read. All else, certainly her career, took a back seat to her personal life, and her Hollywood career never fully recovered. She was anxious to get back to work after Bogie's death, but the industry, the town, seemed uninterested, perhaps pigeonholing her as the wife, rather than the actor she was also. While it was frustrating for her to be out of work for long stretches, (eventually she made a new life on Broadway), it is a great loss to the rest of us to not see more of her on film.

Bacall did a good deal of falling apart and rebounding after Bogie died. She ran around with Frank Sinatra for a while, until he pathetically backed out of a marriage proposal- truly one of the "rat pack". Then, esconced on Broadway, Bacall met and fell in love with Jason Robards. This time, she succeeded in dragging him to the altar, but lived to regret it as his drinking kept right on going. She remarks that the only thing she could count on was that he would be at the theater he was appearing at a half hour before show time. Bacall, who prided herself on her motivation, character, and life sense, found herself treated shabbily, utterly unmoored, with up to six children to take care of at times.

It took six years, but she finally threw him out and embraced a single life, with occasional film roles, but mostly working on Broadway. Katherine Hepburn was a great friend, and indeed a mentor in how to live singly, and how to brush off the constant stream of negativity from critics, missed roles, the press. Bacall worked extremely hard on Broadway, even in musicals, and won a Tony eventually. But the time lost to bad men, and the adoption of a single life, clearly caused rankling regret, after her idyl with the king, which is to say her time of having it all- a great marriage, children, stardom, and a great social life, with Humphrey Bogart.

The theme of father figures is one of the more interesting in this story. Bacall denies seeing any physical (vocal, name ... ) resemblance between Bogart and Robards(!) At least Robards was her age. Anyway, she pays explicit homage at one point to the most influential & positive male figures in her life- her uncle Charlie Weinstein, Bogart, and Adelai Stevenson, whom she campaigned for, flirted with, and who all but offered himself as a partner after Bogie's death. She clearly valued, even hungered for, this influence, which puts her in contrast to the current trend of gender neutrality and anti-patriarchial agitation.

But the father figure is among the deepest archetypes, one we have worshipped forever, name: "God". I think it is fair to say that we all seek father figures through life- as mentors, leaders, power-brokers and status confer-ers, stabilizers. While the patriarchial complex has amplified this archetype out of all proportion, it is biologically programmed and not to be denied. But who can possibly fulfill the role? Very few. And the first ingredient is ... training with another father figure. So the cultural round keeps going, generally in very flawed and even destructive and tragic ways, but so very valuable when it does go right. Many of the ancient epics and fairy tales put a strong black / white frame around this- the good king, ruling a happy land, contrasted with the bad king, beset with bad luck, misery, defeat. Not only the lives of great women, but of whole cultures, hang on the quality of this training, acting, and being.

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