The tilted gaze and arched brow that became her ‘look’ were products of a studio system that nearly trapped her. Thankfully that era is over.
Lauren Bacall with Gary Cooper in Bright Leaf. ‘Those cheekbones, the long reach of her nose, the full pout … This is the celebrated Bacall look.’ Photograph: Ronald Grant Archive
When an actor from Hollywood’s golden era dies, their death is sweetened by all the brilliant photographs of them. This is a slightly shaming truth. Since Lauren Bacall died on Tuesday, images of her heyday have been consumed all over again. It is understandable. Those eyes, those lips. She is easy to admire, hard to look away from.
Along with other stars of her day, she possessed in buckets something since deemed to have been lost: a glamour predicated on aloofness. Looking at her, we lament not only her passing but the long since past when actors dazzled with their hauteur, and every hair of an eyebrow was trained to obey.
From the start Bacall’s on-screen presence was about the way she looked. She began her working life as a model. Howard Hawks’s wife, Nancy, spotted her on the cover of Harper’s Bazaar. Modelling noticeably informed her acting style, and helped her arrive in her first film, To Have and Have Not, at what became known as her “look” – the tilted gaze. Indeed, this was so central to audiences’ appreciation of Bacall that soon she was known simply, reductively, as The Look.
Unlike Katharine Hepburn, who gave us trousers, or Audrey Hepburn, who gave us the little black dress – or Humphrey Bogart, for that matter, who gave us trench coats – Bacall’s look had little to do with fashion. She wore a lot of checked skirt suits and polka dot shirts, and had a predilection for simple shapes of clothes, the odd well-placed sequin; she liked to wear clothes by designers such as Norman Norell or Mainbocher who were noted for elegance rather than originality. No, Bacall’s aura was not about fashion but face.
Those cheekbones, the long reach of her nose, the full pout. Her eyebrows as pointedly arched as a gothic window, framing the hood of her lids, the downcast blade of her lashes. This is the celebrated Bacall look. On screen and in still images her face is often half obscured by the shadows cast by those phenomenal cheekbones, or by her liking for a three-quarter profile shot. And that fits the modern sense of the unattainability of stars of her era. Bacall knew her angles, played her shadows. On her face, endless fantasies about the Hollywood golden era have been posited. But these are delusional.
In fact, of course, Bacall’s look (and her signature husky voice) were the product of the studio system, and of her nervousness. When she made her debut, opposite Bogart, she found, as she later wrote in her autobiography, that keeping her chin down and looking up was the only way to stop herself shaking. Nancy Hawks helped teach her what to wear. The studio styled her to look worldly at 19.
It is true that today’s stars lack Bacall’s glamorous detachment, although there are shades of hauteur and insolence in Angelina Jolie, Natalie Portman and Kristen Stewart, among others. But today’s stars have made massive gains elsewhere. So what if Jennifer Lawrence, who styles herself like other people her age, looks accessible even when stepping out of a helicopter? The fact is, in youth she can exercise much more creative freedom than Bacall could.
Between 1944 and 1950, Bacall was suspended six times by her studio, Warner Brothers, for refusing to take a role. Choice was punished. Her career was an ongoing search for the right part, the right direction. She escaped the tyranny of the look over time, preferring stage roles.
It is easy to see why today’s stars appear more accessible. There has been a revolution in communications: it is tricky to be aloof and be on Twitter. The rise of fast fashion, a high-speed version of Hollywood’s desire in Bacall’s day for women to be “movie fashion plates”, has democratised style. Today’s female actors may appear less mysterious and alluring than Bacall. But that is no bad thing. The truth is that all those presentational decisions came at a cost.
“I think your whole life shows in your face and you should be proud of that,” Bacall said. Perhaps, rather than her aura, we should celebrate her willingness to age in public.