The Designing Woman

The perfect career of Lauren Bacall—an exquisite beauty with the quickest mind in the room—in five films.

Lauren Bacall, 1944
Lauren Bacall, 1944

Photo via John Kobal Foundation/Getty Images

She was the pure molten essence of a mid-20th-century movie star—if something that’s molten can somehow also be cool. Her beauty was classical, sculptural, a little remote, and all her life she carried herself not only with a dancer’s grace, but with a sly awareness of the power conferred on her by that sheer physical exquisiteness. But even at age 19—playing opposite a 44-year-old Humphrey Bogart in Howard Hawks’ To Have and Have Not, in what’s surely one of the most indelible screen debuts in Hollywood history—Lauren Bacall also clearly conveyed the sense of having the quickest mind in the room. When the people in the room include Bogart and Hawks, that’s saying something.

Here she is walking into Bogart’s life and ours for the first time—a micro-scene, less than a minute long and with only two lines of dialogue (both hers), but look at what a tight game of erotic gamesmanship and mutual risk assessment these two are playing. “Anybody got a match?” she asks, and as he gets out the pack to toss to her, we get the pun: They have a match, a sizzling hot one that’s about to set fire to Bogart’s third marriage. Bacall’s timing as she lights her cigarette and tosses the burnt-out match over her shoulder is pure comic bliss. 

According to legend, Bacall was so nervous during filming that she invented the chin-down, eye-locking gaze that her publicist would later dub “the Look” in order to keep from visibly trembling on-camera. Yet she spoke that drop-dead noir dialogue, to quote film historian David Thomson, “as if she had been up all night writing the script.” (In fact, it was William Faulkner who had been burning the midnight oil; he contributed to a late rewrite of the screenplay, an adaptation of a novel by his archrival Ernest Hemingway.)

Two years later in The Big Sleep—another Hawks production co-scripted by Faulkner, this time from a Raymond Chandler novel—Bogart and Bacall, by then married, had developed a slightly different, if just as smoldering, onscreen dynamic. As the detective Philip Marlowe and his possibly duplicitous client Vivian Rutledge, the two circle one another like hawks, interrogating the meaning of every word and gesture. In this scene, Vivian, delivering a doctored version of the truth to her just-hired private eye, inadvertently gives away her own “tell”: When nervous, she toys with the hem of her skirt, allowing Marlowe to deduce that she’s lying even as she reveals a strategic glimpse of gam. The moment the mounting tension between the two resolves in a slightly naughty sight gag is another triumph of Bacall’s undersung comic timing. 

In between To Have and Have Not and The Big Sleep, Bacall received terrible notices for her performance in the Graham Greene adaptation Confidential Agent, which hurt her confidence and her career for years. When she wasn’t acting opposite Bogart, she could sometimes appear stiff and solemn, her natural reserve coming off as chilly remoteness (though when she started to perform onstage later in life, she found a new exuberance that would eventually win her two Tonys). But in the right film role, that chill could be potent. In Douglas Sirk’s great 1956 melodrama Written on the Wind, Bacall plays the wife of an alcoholic playboy (Robert Stack)—a man who, by all highly coded appearances, is a miserable closet case secretly in love with his best friend (Rock Hudson). In the scene below, the three of them meet at a bar for a subtext-laden and thoroughly joyless drink. Sirk leaves the camera on Bacall’s face as she watches Stack fall apart; her almost affectless stoicism is the perfectly judged counterpart to his ostentatious despair. This is the face of a woman who knows what’s going on yet can’t quite let herself know. 

Bacall lost Bogart to cancer in 1957 after 11 happy years, two children, and a mere four movies together. In the decades after—especially after she was remarried to Jason Robards, with whom she would have another son, the actor Sam Robards—she would grow tired of her name being inextricably associated with her first husband’s, to what she sometimes saw as the exclusion of her own identity and achievements (though she always acknowledged Bogart as the formative love of her life). The same year he died, she appeared opposite Gregory Peck in Vincente Minnelli’s Designing Woman, the story of a fiercely independent clothing designer who enters into a fractious marriage with a loving but oafish sportswriter. In retrospect, choosing the role of a headstrong woman opposite a well-established leading man like Peck seems like Bacall’s way of letting Hollywood know that, heartbroken as she might be, she was determined to carry on acting, loving, and living—which she proceeded to do in grand style for the next six decades. If you ever doubted Bacall could display onscreen chemistry with another man besides Bogie, stay tuned through the end of the clip below, in which she breaks off midclinch to playfully nibble on Peck’s ear. 

Still, I confess that upon hearing about Lauren Bacall’s passing at the age of 89 after a long, full life on stage, on screen, and in the world, it was a scene between her and Bogart that I thought of first—a moment midway through their third film together, Delmer Daves’ Dark Passage (1947), in which she plays a bohemian painter type who winds up sheltering an escaped convict in her San Francisco apartment. Bogart’s character has undergone elaborate plastic surgery to change his appearance. For the first third of the film, the audience has seen his face only rarely and in deep shadow, so that when Bacall finally removes his bandages, the man who’s waiting beneath is meant to be a reveal for the audience as well as for her character. But of course, we all know who’s under there.

With great gentleness and gravity, Bacall sits Bogart down on the edge of the bed and cuts away the gauze wrappings that obscure all but his ineffably sad, searching eyes. The face that emerges is the one we’ve been waiting for all movie long—that familiar craggy mug that belongs, with a cosmic rightness, with the elegant, sculpted features of the woman looking into it. But Betty (as her friends continued to call her all her life) doesn’t fall into a swoon that easily. This is a woman who, even as she’s falling head over heels in love, wants to make sure the balance of power periodically swings in her direction. After a cool assessment of her houseguest’s new look, she suggests a shave and a change of clothes. After that, she tells him dryly, maybe she can “get a fresh impression,” as if they were meeting for the very first time. Anybody got a match?

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