Wednesday, August 13, 2014

Anybody Got a Match?

The death, yesterday, of the legendary actress Lauren Bacall was overshadowed by Robin Williams' suicide and the national dialog it triggered about depression and the innate, embedded sadness of comic performers. 

But Bacall's seven-decade career warranted more attention than she's getting. It's hard to think of an actress from Hollywood's golden age who remains with us -- only Olivia de Havilland, 98 and residing in Paris, comes immediately to mind, and she represents an even earlier era. 

Permanently linked in the public's mind with her first husband, Humphrey Bogart, she spent the next 57 years forging a career that leveraged her coolness and slim sartorial style in equal measures until it evolved into worldly old broad roles that included playing Barbra Streisand's mother in The Mirror Has Two Faces. Along the way she made a lot of memorable films, including How to Marry A Millionaire with Marilyn Monroe and The Shootist, in a subdued performance that managed to humanize late-career John Wayne. Eventually she mastered the stage and won two Tonys. 

I met her just once, in London, in 1979. She was appearing at Harrods department store to sign copies of her autobiography By Myself. I was a 22-year-old exchange student in love with the movies, and as I approached the store entrance I saw her through a storefront window that faced out onto the Brompton Road. She'd been placed at an elegant desk with her back to the street, and I was fascinated by how expertly coiffed she was, her shoulder-length hair a shiny study of blond and honey-colored hues.  

When the line snaking through the store finally brought me to the great lady herself, I told her that I couldn't actually afford her book. She laughed that deep, throaty laugh and said how poor she and her mother had been before she'd been discovered by Howard Hawks' wife. She signed some pamphlet or scrap of paper for me, asked where I was from in the states, and then was on to the next person. 

I long ago lost whatever it was she autographed, but I never forgot that voice. 

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