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Film legend Lauren Bacall dies at 89

When we needed to define Hollywood's sultriest sirens of the 1940s, all Lauren Bacall had to do was whistle.

She told us and Humphrey Bogart exactly how to do it, in the 1944 version of Ernest Hemingway's To Have and Have Not.

Just put your lips together and blow, she instructed, in a husky voice that practically lasted her lifetime. And a nation of moviegoers knew exactly what she insinuated, in an era when sex on the silver screen was, by law, a discreet shade of gray.

Ms. Bacall died Tuesday in New York at the age of 89, after suffering a massive stroke.

She was only 19 years old, a fashion model and theater usher, when that noirish come-on made her an overnight star, and later the love of Bogie's life.

Maybe it was The Look or all because of The Look.

Ms. Bacall would recall decades later, in her autobiography Lauren Bacall: By Myself, that her life was changed by nervousness over making her Hollywood debut opposite one of its greatest stars.

Filming their first scene together, Ms. Bacall recalled: "I realized that one way to hold my trembling head still was to keep it down, chin low, almost to my chest, and eyes up at Bogart. It worked."

A star was born, a romance sealed. And "the look" became Ms. Bacall's screen signature.

The pairing of Bogie and Ms. Bacall — immortalized by Tarpon Springs songwriter Bertie Higgins' 1982 pop song Key Largo — proved to be one of Hollywood's finest. Their four collaborations are classics of the scraped-knuckle film noir genre: The Big Sleep, Dark Passage, the aforementioned Key Largo and To Have and Have Not.

Working apart, Ms. Bacall proved herself a capable comedian, in frothy larks like How to Marry a Millionaire with Marilyn Monroe, and Designing Woman opposite Gregory Peck. Broadway eventually beckoned, leading to her Tony award winning performances in 1970's Applause and 1981's Woman of the Year.

Those roles were perceived as comebacks, not only from a show biz slump but from Bogart's death from cancer of the esophagus in 1957. Their love was so intense, so public — the Brangelina of their day — that America cheered Ms. Bacall's resilience after his death.

When Bogart received a diagnosis of cancer of the esophagus in 1956, Ms. Bacall curtailed the couple's social activities and spent nearly all of her time caring for him. In her grief after he died the next year, Ms. Bacall said she fell into a depression.

She grew deeply attached to Frank Sinatra, a close family friend. But when word of their engagement leaked to the media, the singer stopped taking her calls.

She said she felt humiliated by Sinatra, mistreated by the gossip pages and dismayed by what she called the superficiality of Hollywood life.

She eventually remarried in 1961, to future two-time Academy Award winner Jason Robards, a coupling that ended in 1969, reportedly due to his alcoholism. The couple had a son, Sam Robards, who also became an actor.

She was a longtime resident of the Dakota apartments in New York, but her social life extended far beyond the city. She was a presence in the Hollywood film community and Washington stages and salons.

Attracted to liberal politics, Ms. Bacall grew close to a series of Democratic leaders, including President Harry Truman (who once serenaded her with the piano), Robert F. Kennedy and Adlai Stevenson II. In 1947, she flew with Bogart to Washington as part of a group of actors and directors protesting the House Un-American Activities Committee and its investigation into alleged communist subversion in Hollywood.

Like many of her golden era peers, Ms. Bacall had difficulties adjusting to the new Hollywood emerging during the counterculture era of the 1960s and '70s.

A handful of roles —- Sex and the Single Girl, based on the book by Helen Gurley Brown, and Murder on the Orient Express, capitalized on her tough dame image. She played an unrequited love interest opposite John Wayne in the Duke's last movie, 1976's The Shootist.

Then in 1996 — a year when People magazine listed her as one of the world's 50 most beautiful — Ms. Bacall again found herself at Hollywood's center stage. Barbra Streisand cast Ms. Bacall as her mother in The Mirror Has Two Faces, earning the aging actor her only Academy Award nomination, for best supporting actress.

Ms. Bacall was poised for one of Hollywood's finest moments, after winning the Golden Globe, Screen Actors Guild and BAFTA awards in that category, good signs for the time. Instead, Ms. Bacall was caught by television cameras in one of Oscar's awkward moments, her face twisted in confusion and mild disgust when Juliette Binoche's name was announced as the winner, for The English Patient.

Ms. Bacall received her due from the academy later, accepting an honorary Oscar in 2009.

Her later years were marked with a grande dame sense of respect from an industry in which Ms. Bacall remained active. She appeared at the Oscars to introduce a tribute to film noir, added voiceovers to commercials and occasionally acted, still sultry, in non-mainstream films like Lars von Trier's Dogville and Paul Schrader's The Walker, and a guest appearance on The Sopranos, in which she was violently mugged by a masked hoodlum.

Bogart, tough guy that he was, probably would have approved of seeing "Betty" — his pet name for Ms. Bacall — mix it up with the mob. Certainly he would be proud of what she accomplished, and the path she blazed for today's femme fatales and distressed damsels. Paraphrasing Higgins' song: She had it all.

Contact Steve Persall at persall@tampabay.com or (727) 893-8365. Follow @StevePersall. Information from the Washington Post was used in this report.

Movie highlights

. TO HAVE AND HAVE NOT(1944): Bacall's film debut, made when she was 19, and of course her first film with Humphrey Bogart. The two fell in love on set. And if that weren't enough to immortalize the movie, there was this classic line, delivered by Bacall: "You know how to whistle, don't you Steve? You just put your lips together and . . . blow." Director Howard Hawks wisely mined the chemistry between these two actors.

. THE BIG SLEEP (1946): By the time this film noir was made, Bacall and Bogart were married. Hawks also directed this one, an adaptation of Raymond Chandler's 1939 whodunit. Despite what was seen as a terribly confusing plot, the film capitalized on the public fascination with the screen couple.

. KEY LARGO (1948): Also a film noir, and also starring Bogart — along with Edward G. Robinson, Lionel Barrymore and Claire Trevor. The movie, directed by John Huston, was the last of four Bacall did with her husband (the third was Dark Passage). Inspired the 1981 song Key Largo by Bertie Higgins.

. HOW TO MARRY A MILLIONAIRE (1953): A lighthearted comedy that teamed Bacall with Marilyn Monroe and Betty Grable; the actresses played models aiming to land rich husbands. Also a great one for quotes. "You don't think he's a little old?" Bacall's character, Schatze Page, is asked. "Wealthy men are never old," she replies.

. DESIGNING WOMAN (1957): Another romantic comedy, this time with Bacall starring opposite Gregory Peck. Bacall played a fashion designer, Peck her sportswriter husband. The film did well, but Bacall was going through personal turmoil; Bogart died of cancer several months before the film's release.

. APPLAUSE (1970): Appearing on Broadway, Bacall won a best actress Tony for her performance as Margo Channing in this musical, based of course on the 1950 Bette Davis film All About Eve.

Film legend Lauren Bacall dies at 89 08/12/14 [Last modified: Wednesday, August 13, 2014 10:45am]
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