With one look she became a star. With one film she became a legend. Her director was Howard Hawks, her co-star Humphrey Bogart, the film To Have and Have Not. With come-hither eyes and a low purr she taught Bogie how to whistle–"Just put your lips together and blow"– and added a new dimension to American sexuality. Their scenes together crackle with electricity to this day. The movie became a box office sensation and she became half of Hollywood’s most celebrated couple. Even if Lauren Bacall had not made another film after her phenomenal debut in 1944 she would nevertheless still be known as one of the most striking actresses ever to have mesmerized audiences around the world. Fortunately for us all, this was only the start of a celebrated career that now includes 34 more films, six decades as an American icon, numerous appearances on Broadway, two Tony Awards, and two best-selling books.
A child of divorce raised by a working mother, Bacall started out as a star-struck kid named Betty Joan Perske. She began taking acting lessons at age 15, acted in school productions, and like thousands of other struggling young actors waiting for a big break, she worked at various odd jobs, including garment district model, theater usher, and selling guides in front of Sardi’s restaurant. At age 18 she caught the eye of Diana Vreeland, editor of Harper’s Bazaar, and was featured prominently in the magazine three months in a row. It didn’t take long for Hollywood to notice, and by 1943 Betty Bacall had signed a contract with director Howard Hawks. Less than a year later shooting began on To Have and Have Not and before the picture had even wrapped, Warner Brothers knew that Betty, their latest discovery, would soon be their newest star: Lauren Bacall. The noted film critic James Agee proclaimed: "Bacall has cinema personality to burn."
Bogart and Bacall became one of Hollywood’s hottest couples on and off the screen. They married in 1945 and together made two more classic pictures that embody ‘40s Hollywood--Key Largo and The Big Sleep. Other hits followed with other leading men--opposite Kirk Douglas in Young Man with a Horn, Charles Boyer in Confidential Agent, Rock Hudson in Written on the Wind, John Wayne in Blood Alley, --and she showed the world How to Marry a Millionaire with the help of Betty Grable and Marilyn Monroe.
Bacall continued making films in the ‘60s and ‘70s, including Harper, Sex and the Single Girl, The Shootist, The Fan, and Murder on the Orient Express, as she began to play more character roles. In a career that has had, according to Bacall, "its ups and downs," she was always known to fight for better roles for women. She found them on Broadway.
It began with a triumphant return to the stage in 1966 in the hit comedy Cactus Flower. Bacall, whom Newsweek described as having "an achieved presence, the triumphant style of a real survivor," always took full advantage of the right roles she was offered. In 1970, when she was given the lead in the musical Applause, she took to the musical stage as if she had been born to it, winning critical acclaim, public adoration, and a Tony Award. "She is marvelous and a sensation," said Martin Gottfried. Eleven years later, starring in her second Broadway musical, Woman of the Year, an adaptation of the original 1941 movie classic starring Katharine Hepburn and Spencer Tracy, The New York Times said: "Her elegance is no charade. Her class begins where real class must. In her spirit. She is a natural musical-comedy star." She was rewarded with another Tony Award.
"My great luck in life was being surrounded by people who had goals," modestly says the actress who for more than 50 years has personified a singular combination of talent, courage, glamour, and guts. Barbra Streisand, who recently directed Bacall’s Academy Award-nominated performance in The Mirror Has Two Faces, gives the legend herself a little more credit, saying, "Lauren’s special beauty is the reflection of her elegance, her intelligence, and her invigorating will."