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One Hell of a Dame: Remembering Lauren Bacall

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Even the most seasoned (and jaded) journalists are faced with a subject who brings butterflies to the stomach akin to what we felt at our first school dance. The prospect of chatting with the iconic Lauren Bacall had this effect on me. It was 2007 and Bacall had just finished work on Paul Schrader's "The Walker," opposite Woody Harrelson. Our hour-long chat on the phone became one of the great conversations, and personal connections, of my life.

Per her lore, Bacall was fiercely outspoken, bitingly intelligent and elegant in a way which now seems regretfully archaic. She left me with a standing invitation to join her for dinner upon my next trip to New York. The fact that said trip and dinner never transpired in time will remain one of my few regrets.

RIP and thanks for it all.

LAUREN BACALL WALKS THE WALK
By Alex Simon

Lauren Bacall has been a screen icon since her 1944 debut in Howard Hawks' To Have and Have Not, which also brought her together with her first husband, the equally iconic Humphrey Bogart, setting the stage for one of Hollywood's great romances. Now an 83 years-young dynamo, Lauren Bacall was born Betty Jean Perske in New York City on September 16, 1924.

A veteran performer of over 60 films and television productions, Miss Bacall is also a two-time Tony award-winning actress for her triumphant turns on Broadway in Applause and Woman of the Year, both of which, ironically enough, are musicals based on movies.

Miss Bacall makes her 67th film appearance as a high society matron in Paul Schrader's The Walker, a murder mystery set among the elite of Washington, D.C. Starring Woody Harrelson in the title role as the "walker," or escort for unaccompanied ladies, the film also features fine support from Kristin Scott-Thomas, Lily Tomlin, Ned Beatty and Willem Dafoe. The THINKFilm release is currently in theaters. Miss Bacall spoke to us recently about her amazing life. Renowned for never mincing words, she didn't disappoint! Peruse on, gentle readers...

One thing that struck me while watching The Walker were all the parallels between Washington D.C. and Hollywood. Did you find that, as well?

Lauren Bacall: That's interesting. I think that Hollywood, just the name, has been misused over the years, so that everyone in Southern California is "in Hollywood," when nobody is. "Hollywood" has come to mean something else, usually negative. I just thought of this story as being uniquely Eastern, which of course, Washington D.C. is. And D.C. in many ways is very much like (the character of) the walker. I think in most big cities the same thing exists: some odd guy who will escort a woman who's on her own.

I guess I was thinking more in terms of the tenuous nature of relationships in both cities, what friendships are based on, and how the definition of what constitutes friendship constantly seems to shift, depending upon where you happen to lie on the chess board at the time.

Yeah, I see what you're saying, but I think the values are entirely different there. In Washington it's all about power plays and games. They love to play games there. One tries to outdo the other and always wants to know what the other one is doing. There's a scene where the Woody Harrelson character leans forward to Kristin Scott Thomas and he says "They're looking at me now because they're all wondering what I'm saying to you." And it's true. That is very much the political scene. Although I don't really consider it a political movie.

No, it's very much a social commentary disguised as a murder mystery.

Yes, and it's very stylish, too. It's got a wonderful cast of people, and it's a very classy people. Paul Schrader writes very well.

I think he's one of our great screenwriters. When I interviewed him a few years ago, I told him he was America's cinematic sociologist.

(laughs) What did he say?

He laughed, and said "Well, I never thought of myself that way, but...now that you mention it..."

(laughs) I agree with you! That's funny.

Most of your scenes are with Woody Harrelson in the film. What was he like as a scene partner?

I liked him very much. He has a quality I admire tremendously: he's a total professional. He always is prepared, always gives serious thought to what he's doing, and he's a really nice guy! We all got along amazingly well. Lily Tomlin and I are now bosom buddies.

Can we talk about Mr. Bogart?

(laughs) What have you got in mind?

You said something very interesting in your first memoir, that he was not a "tough guy" at all, in spite of the types of roles he played.

He was a very gentle soul. He was very strong, and very sure about what he believed in and what he thought was important and not important. He couldn't be pushed around. But he was a gentle man. I was very, very lucky to have even met him, much less have been married to him. He had extraordinary gifts. He was much more of a complete individuals than most people are. He had the kind of standards my mother had. Their values were very much the same. It was very interesting. He had tremendous character and a great sense of honor and would not tolerate lies, even if they asked him what he though of a movie. We were once at a screening at somebody's house, I forget whose, and they ran a movie that he was in, that he never thought much of. Afterward, the producer asked what he thought of it, and Bogie said "I think it's a crock." (laughs) And this producer was horrified! He was about the release the movie, and he said to Bogie "Why would you say that?!" Bogie shrugged and said "Then don't ask me." He never played the schmoozing game. He was not into that at all.

None of that surprises me because his acting was very honest. He always played very straightforward characters.

That's right. And that's who he was. But he was also sentimental, and romantic. He had all those other qualities that were irresistible. And he was highly intelligent. He was an avid reader. He was also a great, great chess player. I mean, a major chess player.

The two of you were very outspoken against the House Un-American Activities Committee, along with many others, including Danny Kaye and John Huston.

Yes, and this was before Joseph McCarthy. This was J. Parnell Thomas, who it turned out was a crook, and had his entire family on the payroll. He was a nightmare. He was a congressman from New Jersey. He was the one who thought up the HUAC. He was an awful, awful man.

An awful man, and an awful time. And there are many parallels between that time, and the time in which we're currently living.

Yes, the times in which we're currently living unfortunately, our great leader is such a disaster and the entire country is in disastrous shape because of him. It's very frightening, actually, to think that this country has become what it's become and that so many people voted for a man like that. It's terrifying.

Are we ready to have a woman President?

Absolutely. Why not? Women have proven already that they have as much information and are as intelligent as men, and are every bit as gung-ho for any kind of work. I myself just haven't made a decision yet. It's too early. We have an entire year yet of campaigning coming up, and it's already exhausting.

I'm still hoping that Al Gore will pull a Bobby Kennedy and throw his hat in the ring late.

That would be great, but I don't think he will. Why should he? He doesn't need that now. He's been so recognized now for the kind of man he is, and all the things he's accomplished. He was talking about global warming 30 years ago. We'd all like to see him run, but I don't think it's going to happen.

You were friendly with RFK, weren't you?

Oh, I adored him. We'd have a different country now if he'd lived. What a tragedy that was. I knew he and Ethel fairly well, and knew that he was capable of changing himself and evolving to such a degree. There was always something so touching about him, so moving. He really had feelings and was able to express them. And what he believed in would've brought so much to America, so much more quality that we've been living in the middle of for quite some time. Why would they shoot someone like him, or Jack Kennedy for that matter? Why would they do something like that?

It sometimes seems as though if a person becomes too evolved, they check out, or they're taken out.

Yes, and the madmen seem to live on forever, don't they?

Let's go back to some of the people you've worked with over the years. Why don't we start with the man who discovered you: Howard Hawks.

Marvelous, marvelous director of tremendous variety. If you think of the quality of the movies that he made, and how different each of them were, and how fantastic they all were. And he had a great sense of the motion picture, of the photography, of the shape of the screen, of the actors. He was brilliant, absolutely brilliant. I was so lucky and would have remained so lucky if I hadn't fallen in love with Mr. Bogart, because he washed his hands of me the minute that happened. He couldn't control me anymore. He was a control freak.

I'd say things still worked out pretty well in your favor.

Absolutely. I wouldn't change a thing.

What about Ernest Hemingway?

Hemingway was an odd guy. He was a big boozer, as you know, but I didn't know him well, but had dinner with him one night in Spain, when I was on location for a movie, and I was taken there by Slim Hawks, who was then married to Leland Hayward, and had known Hemingway since she was a kid. So much of Hemingway was phony. He flirted with women with his wife sitting right there, and he always said "Oh honey, just call me Papa..." He wrote wonderfully, but the way he spoke, he was always kind of batting his eyes at you. It was an odd experience, really. I was very excited to meet him, and Bogie always wanted to do The Old Man and the Sea, because he loved the story and he loved the sea so much. But, again, I didn't really know him well, but I think he was not great with women. Martha Gellhorn (Hemingway's third wife) was a great friend of mine, and she's the only one who never really talked about him publicly, interestingly enough.

What about William Faulkner?

(laughs) He was adorable. He was this great writer, and Howard Hawks had known him before, and always gave him a job, because Howard knew that Faulkner was always broke. Faulkner had so many wonderful eccentricities. Did you ever hear the story about when he asked the studio bosses if he could work at home, instead of at the writer's building in the studio?

No, what happened?

Well, the studio was very excited to have him working on this movie, but after a couple weeks, they hadn't received any material from him, and Faulkner said 'Do you mind if I work at home? I just can't concentrate here at the studio?" The studio said sure, and that's exactly what Faulkner did, he went home--to Mississippi! (laughs) He was really a lovely, very shy man, and an alcoholic, as many writers have been. But he was always glad to see all of us. We were always in Rome at the same time. He was working on a Howard Hawks movie, Land of the Pharaohs, when Harry Curtis, who was another wonderful writer and a great friend of mine, went to Rome, and wanted to see Faulkner. So he found out where Faulkner was staying, and opens the door, and this white uniform flashes by quickly--obviously a nurse. And there's Faulkner in bed, just coming off a bender. And he looks up at Harry, who says "Hi Bill, how you doing?" Faulkner said (thick Southern accent) "Well hello Harry. I'm fine, but I just can't seem to shake this cold." (laughs) He never talked about the booze. He was marvelous. I have many stories about him, but that would be going far into left field, so let's stay focused.

Fair enough. I know that you and Kirk Douglas have had a long, enduring friendship, going back to your days at The American Academy of Dramatic Art in New York. In fact, you both appeared together in the film Diamonds a few years back.

Yes, I was 15 when I first met Kirk. He is amazing! At 90 he's still writing books, just extraordinary, when you think what he's been through physically with the stroke. He's a real character and when I knew him was a womanizer beyond being a womanizer! (laughs) I mean, he was so over-the-top. But, he was so attractive and just a wonderful actor. I had such a crush on him when I was a kid. And of course, he made passes at me, because that's what he did with nearly every woman he met, but I was so young, I didn't know one pass from another! (laughs)

In his first memoir, as I'm sure you know, he says that you were one of the only young ladies during that period who managed to hang on to her virtue after going out with him, and he admired you for that.

That's right. But God knows he tried! (laughs) I gave him my uncle's overcoat because he was so poor. He had no money at all. New York was, and is, freezing during the winter and my favorite uncle had a couple of overcoats, and one that he didn't wear very much. So I convinced my uncle to give it to me to give to Kirk. Kirk lived in a walk-up, three stories, and I carried that coat up three floors to give to him.

And he never forgot that, either. He talked about that in "The Ragman's Son."

No, he never forgot. He's a dear.

You had the rare privilege of being on location for The African Queen with Mr. Bogart, John Huston and your good friend Katharine Hepburn. What was that like?

It was amazing. First of all, Africa was fabulous, and I loved every second of it, unless I saw some creepy Tarantula or snake, then I didn't love it so much. John Huston was to me, a genius. I thought he was the best director of all. He always chose subjects that weren't what you would think of as "commercial." They were never based on hit books, or plays, or anything like that. He did things that were interesting and fascinating. He was so wonderful to work with, and he was such a character. He and Bogie were really close pals. Anytime he made a movie, he wanted Bogie in it, and Bogie followed him blindly. Although John was not known for choosing locations that were comfortable, Bogie would go along with him in a second. They really liked each other a lot. John was unique in every possible way, and a funny, funny guy. I remember one time, we were all flying to Paris for the weekend: Katie, John, Bogie and myself, were on the plane from London. And Katie was going to meet the Kanins: Garson Kanin and Ruth Gordon, and Spencer (Tracy) was there, so she was going to have a little rendezvous with those four. In the hotel we shared a suite, Bogie and I had one bedroom and John had the other, with a joint living room. John was so hysterically funny there are no words to describe it. (laughs) How rare a thing is it to have someone like John with a brilliant mind who is a great director, amazing actor, a wonderful writer and really unusual and then have him be wonderful company, as well? Unpredictable, but always interesting. Just an amazing man. I was lucky.

Do they even make people like Huston, Mr. Bogart, Miss Hepburn or you anymore?

No, they don't! They aren't people like us anymore. The standards, the principles, it's all about money now, which makes me sick. I mean, I like money as much as anybody else, but I think this country has become so commercial and my profession has become all about money. It's as if making $20 million a movie somehow makes you a better person, you know? Most of the great geniuses that are running the business now seem to think that. Huston's standards were very high when it came to his work. The work always came first, not the money.

In The Shootist you got to work with two of my all-time heroes: John Wayne and Don Siegel. Tell us about that.

Duke Wayne and I got along really well, considering that we didn't agree about anything! (laughs) It was quite amazing. He was great to work with. He really liked me, and I really liked him. We had great chemistry together. But he was so awful to Don Siegel. He kept saying things like "You call this a set-up? What kind of a director are you?" Duke wanted to direct the movie. He was difficult, boy. And Don Siegel was a wonderful director. I like the movie a lot and after all, Duke was a dying man making that movie. It was quite an experience.

As a teenager you had a fortuitous meeting with Bette Davis, didn't you?

Yes, I did. She was absolutely my idol growing up. I just worshipped her. She was the most amazing actress, and had this quality about her that was unparalleled, and I still feel that way. My Uncle Jack had a friend named Robin, who was Bette Davis' assistant. She was coming to New York, and Uncle Jack arranged a meeting for me and my best friend. So we went to her hotel, I think it was the Gotham Hotel, and I was so nervous I was shaking from head to foot. My whole body was shaking! We went up to her suite and sat on the sofa in the living room, and suddenly out comes Bette Davis, with that walk! I thought I was going to keel over. Fortunately, I didn't! I said 'I want to be an actress,' and she told me that I'd have to work very hard...and the fact that she allowed us to be in her room and have a conversation with her, was just amazing. We didn't have a very long time with her. She gave us tea, and I was afraid I was going to break the cup because I was shaking so badly. (laughs)

Did you wind up getting to know her at all once you became a famous actress yourself?

No, funnily enough, I never did. She was not easy to know. She was not a very warm, open, friendly woman. Katie Hepburn, for example, was a very warm, open vulnerable woman. She was very easy to get to and to approach. When I was on the Warner Bros. lot even, she mentioned to Jack Warner that I should be cast in a film they were doing. Other than that, I never had any direct contact with her until much later. Also, after the meeting with her I wrote a letter thanking her, and she wrote me back! That was pretty amazing, too.

Do you still have that letter?

I think I have it somewhere. I'm sure I kept it, but over the years, who knows? Things fall through the cracks. But later I was on Broadway in Applause, of course, playing Margo Channing, which was her role in All About Eve, and which will always be her part, because it was on the screen, and the screen lasts forever, thanks to Martin Scorsese. So I feel a connection to her through that, as well.

Let's talk about some of your stage work.

Well, Applause was certainly the highlight of it, because it was my first musical, and I'd always wanted to do a musical.

And you won a Tony for your first musical.

Yes, and I won for Woman of the Year, too, funnily enough playing the part that Katie Hepburn played in the movie version, which came first. (laughs)

Does the process of working on the stage and screen differ for you?

Well, the major difference is time: when you do a movie, it's a much shorter process, but you don't see the final product until a year or two later, and by then you've moved onto other things. But on the stage, that's the real place for actors, because you have an immediate response from your audience. Doing eight shows a week is difficult. It requires stamina and tremendous energy, and you really don't have room in your life for much else but it is, I think, the most rewarding and gratifying way to be an actor because it's live, and you connect with the audience.

Another great experience you had in the theater was being directed by the great playwright Harold Pinter in Tennessee Williams' Sweet Bird of Youth.

Oh, Harold is one of my heroes! I adore that man. That was the only time I've been lucky enough to speak the words of Tennessee Williams. That was the beginning of this wonderful friendship I've had with Harold over the years. Plus, opening in London was amazing, because it's one of my favorite places in the world. It's the greatest theater city in the world. You can go to The National Theater and see three different plays. There's always something you want to see, although it's usually not playing when you're there. (laughs) The other great thing about London in my profession, they appreciate actors who are in flops. If someone was devoted to John Gielgud, they stayed that way whether he was in a hit play, or not! In America, if you're not number one, two, or three on the list, you're out. Move on to the next one.

It's interesting: every European actor I've interviewed has said the same thing: in the States it's a business, and in Europe, it's a community.

Absolutely. They're interested in quality. They have standards and respect for the medium they're working in, whether it's in the movies or in the theater.

Was it a different experience being directed by someone who's also a writer, as Mr. Pinter is?

Well, I've found in other plays that I've been in that have been directed by someone other than the writer, the writer always has to be there in case something needs to be changed, or to make sure that you don't change anything. But Harold, being the great writer that he is, was meticulous about sticking to the text of Tennessee Williams. Harold had tremendous respect for his words, as he should have.

You also got to work with the great Robert Altman twice. Tell us about Brother Bob.

He was extraordinary, a unique talent. He knew what he wanted and his choices were fascinating, because his point of view came from another place, much different than most of us have. I think the sad thing is that Health was not paid more attention to, because it was perfectly timed with the election of Ronald Reagan, and it also involved the characters of Adlai Stevenson and Dwight Eisenhower. I had a great time on that, but unfortunately Pret a Porter was not so good, but he was not in good health when we were doing that. There was some great moments in it, though. He was an original.

Another original you've worked with recently is Lars Von Treer.

(big laugh) I'll say!

What was that experience like?

He's another real character. You had to unlearn everything you'd learned about working in movies working with Lars. He was holding the camera all the time, so you never knew if you were in the scene, or not in the scene. And there were no sets. It was all drawn out on the soundstage, on the floor. It was a fascinating experience. I finally liked it very much, but we all felt kind of peculiar initially because we didn't understand the way he wanted to do it, until we realized. But he's a very talented man. I loved Breaking the Waves, which was an amazing film, and why I was so thrilled when he asked me to do Dogville. It's funny, a lot of people still ask me what that film was about. (laughs) I always say, 'Don't ask me, ask Lars.'

You've certainly seen films and filmmaking change since you began in '44.

Yes, it has and they have. I wish there wasn't so much violence in films today. I saw two films recently, There Will Be Blood and American Gangster, both very good films, but they were so violent. With all the violence in the world, and with all the dialogue about decreasing violence, why are movies so violent?

We're living in a violent time, and I think that art, especially film, holds up a mirror to the time in which they're made. Look at the films of the late 60's and early '70s: Bonnie & Clyde, The Wild Bunch, Straw Dogs, A Clockwork Orange, The Godfather, all those films were emblematic of the time in which they were made.

Yes, that's true. And now, the time we're living in is under a government that doesn't care about art, any kind of art, whether it's painting, or sculpture, or the performing arts. You don't think George Bush gives a goddamn about any of that, do you? The main problem is that the government that represents us reflects itself in the art that the country creates. And there's certainly nothing that encourages creativity in this bloody government. It can't get any worse, I don't think.

Any final thoughts?

Well, I hope that I keep my health and I hope that we elect a decent President because I can't stand the thought of living with more of this kind of horror that we've been living with now for so many years. It is so disgraceful, and why Bush wasn't impeached immediately, I'll never understand. By the way, if you haven't figured it out yet, I'm a liberal--the L word! (laughs)