Friday, June 11, 2010

Coolest Couples #3: Lauren Bacall and Humphrey Bogart

Bogey - a man of contradictions, perhaps more like the no-bullshit tolerating screenwriter of IN A LONELY PLACE (1950) than some would like. Bacall - plucked from the fashion model ranks by Howard Hawks' classy wife and brought to Hollywood for a screen test, contract and lessons in classiness. She was 19 and Bogie 45 when they starred in TO HAVE AND HAVE NOT (1944) and fell in love, a romance allowed to bloom under the Hawks' watchful, nurturing eye. Hawks had his own yen for her but was no fool about it. Eternal lightning in a bottle movie magic had priority over his petty desires. True artists understand this. Hawks is a true artist.

I love Howard Hawks so much that I wont even read his biography. If I read he wasn't as wondrous and nice a spiritual father as I imagine, I might lose some of my admiration and I would be lost. But even Joan Crawford deserves to have her films evaluated purely on their own merit, and so Bogey and Bacall need to be judged, purely on their amazing chemistry in Hawks' two films with them: THE BIG SLEEP and TO HAVE AND HAVE NOT, for in some ways they were his couple. Their non-Hawks films together - DARK PASSAGE, KEY LARGO, are okay movies, but aren't really in the same league. They're movies with Bogie and Bacall in them, and someone trying and failing to get what Hawks got out of them. Hawks' camera is the third wheel all third wheels aspire to be.

Poor Bogart died rather early on in Bacall's life and perhaps that's how all May-December romances should end: the elder member dying before becoming old and unsexy.  As our country gets more and more repressive and ageist, it's important to remember that May-December romances are awesome if they don't drag on too long, and both parties are in their right mind. Unusually  intelligent and soulful men in their forties and girls in their early 20s have a lot in common: they both want to face death more than they care about safe boring normalcy. Sensitive women in their 40s and boys in their 20s have a similar bond only in reverse: complete disillusionment and resentment towards the status quo, life's cold-hearted casino dealer on the endless boulevard of broken lights. Men mature later than girls, and don't have to deal with menopause. Early 20s girls don't have to deal with the anxieties of having kids or fretting over the biological hourglass running out. They do have to deal with immature boys more anxious to huff solvents and play air guitar hero than fund vacations or co-create stable family environments or plumb emotional depth connections. The 40-something men are dealing with wives that have stripped off sex like a wet burlap dress and slipped into fresh-from-the-drier mommy pants right as they--the men--are just beginning to have any sort of sexual self-confidence. 

When they met, Bogey was married to a drunken jealous psycho named Mayo Methot and lacked the wherewithal to do much about it except match her drink for drink, nickname her "Sluggy" and just do his best to not get shot in the face.

Bacall meanwhile was 19 and practicing lowering her speaking voice under Hawks' tutelage. As Hawks later said, "Bogie fell in love with the character she played and she had to go right on playing it for the rest of their marriage." See, right there I could almost get disillusioned. I read that in HAWKS ON HAWKS and it was enough for me. Enough to know he's a bit of a cynic. I got to walk away right there.

In the 1940s we should remember, marriage was tough to escape and sex was still a commodity; giving it up before marriage required either an engagement ring, diamond bracelet or double the amount of alcohol it takes now. Unless of course you were already divorced or widowed. Consider the times and realize that this couple had the chips cast against them: an ex-wife that used to show up at parties with pistols, their own age differences, cancer, gossip. Yet that stuff just makes it all the more romantic. The tales of how he would walk alongside the road and Bacall would stop to pick him up for brief hand-holding car get-aways is familiar to me through my own past indiscretions and I can assure you it just makes it super-hot for it to be so wrong. I thought a lot about Bogie and Bacall during that whole period in my life; they were my road map, my validation, like WC Fields had been before I sobered.

The sad part of it all is of course Bogey's cancer in 1957. On the other hand, they went to Africa to film THE AFRICAN QUEEN before that. I love that Bacall tagged along for moral support, hanging out in the wilds of the jungle, smoking and reading Hemingway (I'm guessing) and making sure cocktail hour was scintillating as it could be with so many bugs around. As for Bogart's three-pack-a-day unfiltered Camel-related cancer, well, we all got to go sometime, and sometimes getting out while you can still get it up is pretty good. Bogey never had to get old and crotchety and watch her take off with Frank Sinatra (who almost married her and took over Bogey's "rat pack" chairman of the board role after his death) or the pool boy. He never had to go all Mr. Chatterly.

I also love that Bacall and Bogart led a staunch anti-blacklist crusade, daring to step up and shout down the ravings of that alcoholic paranoid Joseph McCarthy (above). Later he kind of back-pedaled, but could you honestly say you knew black from white or red from green in that business?

But so what? In a way, Hawks was something like the Dog Whisperer, in telling his characters what he needed from them he also gave his actors a way to live. The codes of ethics these people have is clear-cut, admirable, and yet leaves room for plenty of improvisation, drinks, cigarettes, sex and fun.  The censors even let Hawks get away with stuff they'd never let pass in other directors' films, because, as Hawks says: "they liked my pictures." And you can see why: Hawks' characters operate on much higher principles than even the censors would hope for in cinema. His principles are high enough that he can kick aside conventional morality and its gossipy, sexually-frustrated parameters like a card table at a saloon-side brawl, and no one's going to dare say a word about it.  No amount of money or danger, pain or pressure, can stop a Hawksian hero from doing what he feels is right: he wants his women to know there are no strings attached to him, and he wants them the same way, even if he has to unearth all their darkest family secrets before rolling the hay bones. We can also find this level of ethics in the novels of Raymond Chandler, which is why THE BIG SLEEP was such a good fit all around:
Ms. Rutledge: Why are you doing this?
Marlowe: Maybe I'm in love with you, too.
Mrs. Rutledge: You know whether you're in love with me or not.
Bogart: Maybe I do. 

Baby, he did. More than 50 years after his death, Bogart is still going strong, a benchmark of masculine honor that all men still turn to for dating advice, like Woody Allen in HERE'S LOOKING AT YOU KID. Bacall is still going strong, on Broadway and in gutsy films like DOGVILLE.  She went on to marry and divorce no less a coolio than Jason Robards. But of course, you can feel the spirit of Bogey still coursing through her being. If she had to stay in character all through their marriage, let's not forget he stayed in character as well, and has continued to do so even from the grave. He's more than an actor to those who love him, he's the wellspring from which much of what is cool today flows -- Jean Paul Belmondo mirroring his HARDER THEY FALL lobby card in BREATHLESS or Sinatra's own reinterpretation in his re-imagined post-war tough guy persona (pre-war let's not forget, Sinatra was a beanpole crooner from Hoboken who'd show up on Jack Benny and suffer through being regularly blown away by strong winds or auditioning for the role of a broom handle. Bogie surely had a hand in inspiring his later tough guy image).

On a personal note, when I went through some rough single in the city stretches in the mid 90s, my friend Max instructed me to adopt the mantra: "Be like Bogey... be like the Bogey," which wasn't some sleazy bit of base-running advice, it was a deeply honorable and resonant way to not lose track of who I was while waiting for some chick to call me back. A whole wealth of soul-grooming advice is packed into the word Bogey: it means "become a self-sustaining honorable tough but compassionate, sarcastic but loving, wise but fearless, unflinching but sensitive hero who doesn't live and die by whether or not some broad calls him back, and so they always do."

All I ever have to remember when I'm losing my shit is: "be like Bogey," my rudders are magically righted. There'll only ever be one Bogey and Bacall, but their love was our love, they had enough to share, and in sharing they helped a nation dealing with war and noir disillusionment refashion their sense of self in such a way as to allow numerous antithetical attitudes to exist simultaneously. They were two toughs who loved each other with a love that mixed attraction and respect in equal measure and they could soften around each other yet be twice as tough at the same time. Just look at the above pictures. Whenever or not they're gazing into each other's eyes, you can feel, even in the photos, their love - even when neither is smiling. Audiences felt and feel it too then and today. Even today those two movies they made with Hawks give us hope, confidence, trust, a renewed sense of honor, and a need to smoke and tell the truth, whatever the consequences.

If modernism is the cause of stripping away arts' illusion to reveal death too suddenly and in disguise to allow our brain to mask it, if only for a second, then Bogey was the man for whom it was never masked at all --he like few others saw it clearly and recognized it without flinching or blaming or bargaining. Being on LSD can be like that too, which is why Bogey's films were so popular at 60's-80's college campuses. Bogey helped you navigate your way out of bad trips. As Bazin and Truffaut wrote in Cahiers du Cinema, Bogey was, I paraphrase, a walking corpse whose smile was the smile of death, of laughing at death even as it eats your mouth off. Bazin goes on to say Bogey represented "the immanence of death, its imminence as well." Here's lookin' at you, kid.

And hurrah for the next who dies.
And sometimes...

Sometimes you're just a stinker. 


  1. Erich,

    What you wrote about younger men and older women is bang on. Beautiful and perfect. I love it! Feelings are scary and love hurts....and you're absolutely right, the coolest couples are the ones who dive right in, no fear. Let the blade of love stick it to you, no matter how inappropriate, well especially if it's inappropriate. Yes!

  2. I... don't know how any couple could be half as cool as Laurphrey (maybe Rachel and Rick). Guess I'll have to read on.

  3. This was totally spot on with why their chemistry works. There is just something really attractive about an older experienced man and a young woman, relatively inexperienced, falling in love and playing a character who is practically sex on legs on set. Love this blog! <3

    Not, hopefully, in my relationship I can just be cool as them!

  4. Bogie gets his lady, again! R.I.P. Lauren Bacall


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