As many people were still left reeling from the shocking news of Robin Williams’ death, they were struck with tragic news again the next day, Tuesday, August 12, when classic Hollywood actress Lauren Bacall passed away. Bacall had reached the age of 89 by the time of her passing, and would have turned 90 next month. At the start of her career she had been a teenage fashion model for magazines such as Vogue and Harper’s Bazaar, but it was her debut role in the 1944 film To Have and Have Not that made her a breakout star. This was the first of multiple collaborations with her future husband, actor Humphrey Bogart, and together they would come to define each others’ star images throughout the 1940s.
But Bacall constructed an image that was entirely her own as well right out of the gate. In the role of Slim Browning in that first film, at the age of just 19, she carried herself with the maturity and confidence of a full-grown woman who could handle herself in tough situations. Along with her sharp features and a “look” that could cut diamonds, Bacall’s husky voice helped to illustrate her star power in a way that set herself apart from Hollywood’s other top actresses. One only needs to watch the famous scene in To Have and Have Not where she tells Bogart to “put your lips together and blow [to whistle]” to understand how her talent was so readily apparent. But why stop there?
1946’s The Big Sleep reunited her with Bogart and by that point their innate chemistry had become so identifiable that the film’s dialogue was reshaped to target the appeal they had together. It was these films, as well as later ones such as Dark Passage and Key Largo, that established Bacall as a quintessential figure of noir storytelling, often as the femme fatale. She could play mysterious with a specific look and posture, while her husky voice exuded dangerous allure.
The actress would branch out into other genres like musicals and westerns in the following decade, and her well-established star persona would be used as a contrast in lighter affairs like the 1955 comedy How to Marry a Millionaire. As the studio system waned during the 1960s so did Bacall’s starring roles. She began taking on parts as more of a character actress in ways that demonstrated her range and went well beyond a defined type, such as her wounded character in the Paul Newman vehicle Harper and her part amongst the eclectic cast of Murder on the Orient Express.
Old age didn’t stop Bacall from consistently working in film and television up until the time of her death, either, and in 1997 at the age of 72 she finally received her first Academy Award nomination for her supporting role in The Mirror Has Two Faces. In addition to working with filmmakers Rob Reiner (Misery) and Lars Von Trier (Dogville), Bacall made an appearance on a late series episode of The Sopranos as herself. Her last two roles prior to her passing came in the realm of animation, earlier this year in Family Guy and the film Ernest and Celestine, but it’s the whistles heard since 1944 that ensure Lauren Bacall’s long life and career will be fondly remembered.