As both a longtime classic film fan and a devoted follower of author Raymond Chandler, it’s strange for me to admit that I don’t like Lauren Bacall in the role of Vivian Sternwood in the 1946 film version of Chandler’s The Big Sleep. Bacall’s work is not lacking; she delivers a strong, nuanced performance. Too strong and nuanced. I always envisioned Vivian Sternwood as a flatter, more straightforward character. Instead, in Bacall’s hands, she became complicated, mysterious and compelling. She was not just the femme fatale. She became a woman too difficult to understand. It made her powerful beyond imagining, and beyond what the other characters, or actors, or audiences could handle.
Bacall’s story is one of the most complicated there is from Old Hollywood, that magical place to which virtually no links still live on. She linked us to it as long as she did because she came into it as a baby, only nineteen years old when Howard Hawks molded her into the perfect Hawks woman for To Have and Have Not, then the legend Humphrey Bogart married that woman. She had an odd, privileged existence handed her to early on and keeping it sometimes necessitated sacrificing to the legend. It’s either irony that her persona, so shaped by the men around her, was defined by insolence, independence and grit—or it was perfectly fitting that it was the exaggeration of all of those traits she herself possessed that allowed her to survive the shaping, and flourish.
I have always believed the case to be the latter. In order to shape, you have to have the right material to work with in the first place, and, throughout Bacall’s career, no matter what the role, she is always characterized by a certain strength and resilience from within.
Recently, I had a conversation with my friend Leon about processing the amount of relative “success” one has in one’s “career” (what do any of those words really mean, anyway), and my mild confusion about how I got to where I am. He explained it as: “You showed up. And kept showing up.” I thought about it a moment and realized that was something I could understand and accept. And that, over an extended period of time, it’s not a slight accomplishment in the least. Lauren Bacall showed up. And kept showing up, for decades. Her autobiography was titled, Still Here. She held her ground against everyone who tried to make her in their own image for their own purposes and outlasted them all. Would that we all could achieve similar success.