Forget Bogart — the actress was her own better half, as demonstrated by a pair of movies from her prime.
A few years before her death this month at 89, Lauren Bacall gave Vanity Fair the verbal equivalent of a playful shrug at the prospect of her obituaries being, as she predicted, “full of Bogart.”
“If that’s the way it is,” said the last survivor of Hollywood’s golden age, “that’s the way it is.”
Indeed, that’s the way it was, with many of the recent eulogies focusing largely on the veteran actress’ dozen years and four films with husband Humphrey Bogart, who died in 1957.
Perhaps our collective preoccupation with Bacall’s on- and off-screen love life isn’t entirely egregious, as two of those four films — “The Big Sleep” (1946) and “To Have and Have Not” (1944), both directed by Howard Hawks — remain among the most friskily romantic ever made.
Still, the actress, whose 1978 biography wasn’t called “Lauren Bacall by Myself” for nothing, deserves to be known as more than merely the woman behind the man. Thankfully, video on demand allows us to see that Bacall more than held her own sans Bogie, particularly in a pair of ’50s films directed by Vincente Minnelli.
In Minnelli’s “The Cobweb” (in HD on Amazon Instant Video), set in an upscale psychiatric clinic, Bacall plays not a devoted wife, but the proverbial other woman. Her character, an occupational therapist, is having an affair with the clinic’s married doctor (Richard Widmark) and not fully liking the arrangement. Granted, Bacall’s is a relatively minor role in an ensemble cast, but she makes the transition from sultry to sober quite memorably.
Made two years later, while Bogart was on his deathbed, the singular “Designing Woman” (Amazon and iTunes) is an even more striking showcase of Bacall’s independence. As a matter of fact, the movie plays as an allegory of the actress’ desire to escape her husband’s shadow.
In “Designing Woman,” Bacall is a sophisticated clothing designer who finds that she doesn’t have much in common with Mike (Gregory Peck), the sportswriter she married on a whim. In plot terms, the film is a virtual remake of the 1942 Hepburn-Tracy vehicle “Woman of the Year,” although here, 15 years later, the stakes are higher, and Bacall is allowed to stick up for the swanky, DIY life she believes in.
In “By Myself,” Bacall’s recollection of that shoot says it all. “For the first time in my professional life,” she writes, “I was functioning as an independent actress, as a single woman. And since I loved ‘Designing Woman,’ I felt better about my work than I had in years.”
Also notable on VOD
The other day, I nearly flipped my wig at the sight of “Shampoo,” one of my all-time favorite films, in high-definition at last (on iTunes and Amazon).
Made in 1975 but set in ’68 (on the eve of Nixon’s election to the presidency), Warren Beatty’s semi-autobiographical ode to his own insatiable appetite for swinging never looked right on the out-of-print DVD, and has not been released to Blu-ray. That’s likely because the movie’s visuals — making the most of high-contrast 35mm — would be exceedingly tricky to transfer to video. The film’s very first scene, with Beatty’s hairdressing George giving a client (Lee Grant) an after-hours touch-up of sorts, is dark enough to make Don Corleone’s inner sanctum look like permanent daylight.
How to comprehend a movie that literally can’t be seen? In HD, though, this alternately wild and brooding satire can finally be appreciated by modern viewers as not just a gloss on Beatty’s ladies’ man image, but as a film that poignantly laments the last gasp — or pant, perhaps — of the ’60s counterculture.
By most accounts, director Hal Ashby (“Harold and Maude”) had a hard time being heard over the steady hum of the star’s hair dryer. Still, “Shampoo,” blessed with indelible supporting performances by Julie Christie, Goldie Hawn and a teenage Carrie Fisher — might well be the last great movie of the so-called New Hollywood.
Send questions or comments to Rob Nelson at VODcolumn@gmail.com.